James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, second from right,… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — After news reports that the National Security Agency had secretly monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone calls, America's top intelligence official was asked why congressional oversight committees were kept in the dark.
Shouldn't Congress have been briefed, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) asked James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, about a spying operation that would embarrass the U.S. government if exposed?
"Well, sir, there are many things we do in intelligence that, if revealed, would have the potential for all kinds of blowback," Clapper replied at a House Intelligence Committee hearing in October. "The conduct of intelligence is premised on the notion that we can do it secretly, and we don't count on it being revealed in the newspaper."
Not these days.
Clapper and his colleagues now operate in a spy world reshaped by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who claims responsibility for what officials deem the largest and most damaging compromise of classified information in U.S. history. Among the casualties is the assumption that some of the nation's most carefully guarded secrets will stay secret.
NSA officials say Snowden downloaded and removed about 1.7 million documents from computer networks at an NSA listening post in Hawaii where he worked until June. The haul included about 2,000 specific requests for NSA surveillance that officials say make up a digital road map of spying successes and gaps in such high-profile targets as Iran, Russia, North Korea and China.
The requests have not been made public. But other leaks from Snowden's cache have been so illuminating that experts say the disclosures will mark a turning point in U.S. spying, much as revelations of CIA assassinations and NSA domestic spying led to creation of the congressional oversight committees and new laws in the 1970s.
At least some change appears inevitable. In just the last week, events produced "a seismic shift in the movement for real surveillance reform," said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a critic of NSA programs.
In Washington, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon issued a sharp rebuke to the NSA on Monday when he ruled that a major program that Snowden exposed — the secret logging of virtually every American's telephone calls — was "almost Orwellian" in scope and probably violated the Constitution.
Leon stayed his ruling pending an expected government appeal. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and has been a staunch Capitol Hill ally for the embattled agency, announced that she would welcome a Supreme Court review to determine whether the bulk collection is legal.
The next day, the leaders of the nation's largest technology companies sat down with President Obama and complained that the NSA was damaging their reputations and undermining Silicon Valley's ability to sell computer hardware and cloud services, hurting the U.S. economy. (Privacy advocates have noted that they have been calling on leading technology companies to offer safeguards of their own against the use of personal information they gather.)
Several executives said some foreign customers had begun to reject American-made technology because Snowden's leaks showed that the NSA had enlisted tech firms and secretly tapped their data-transfer hubs. Some companies are facing lawsuits from shareholders demanding disclosure of any cooperation with NSA data-mining programs.
And on Wednesday, a presidential task force called for sweeping changes in NSA operations at home and abroad, including an end to the NSA's vast collection of U.S. telephone records. It said telephone companies or other groups, instead of the government, should keep the logs and allow the NSA access only if it obtains a court order.
Some critics say that's not enough. Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee who has called for new curbs on NSA operations, said the panel's proposals would leave intact what he called "the surveillance state in America." Storing telephone data on the servers of a nongovernmental entity, he said, "would simply represent an outsourcing of bulk collection, not an end to it."
The crosscurrents added pressure on Obama to act more forcefully. On Friday, he said at a news conference that he would make "a pretty definitive statement" in January to outline surveillance reforms, including support for at least some of the task force's 46 recommendations.
"People are concerned about the prospect, the possibility of abuse," he said. But he said he was confident that the NSA was "not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around" on Americans.
Intelligence officials say some of America's adversaries, including members of Al Qaeda, have changed how they communicate to avoid the surveillance that Snowden disclosed.
Other costs are also now clear.