Director of National Intelligence James Clapper speaks Thursday at the… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON -- James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said Thursday that Edward Snowden's disclosures of secret surveillance programs at home and abroad have generated a useful public debate on the trade-offs between privacy and national security.
"I think it's clear that some of the conversations this has generated, some of the debate, actually needed to happen," Clapper told a defense and intelligence contractor trade group. "If there's a good side to this, maybe that's it."
Clapper defended the work of the National Security Agency, where Snowden worked on contract as a systems analyst, and took no responsibility for the glaring security lapse that allowed Snowden to download and remove at least 50,000 classified documents from an NSA listening post in Hawaii.
The "continuous stream of revelations" that has appeared in U.S. and British newspapers has damaged national security, and is far from over, Clapper said.
"Unfortunately, there is more to come," he said.
He said the intelligence community is taking steps to prevent other employees or contractors from compromising security.
"There's been a lot of focus on insider threat detection, which we were into, but probably not with the emphasis and the energy that we are now," Clapper said.
His statement suggested that the digital theft of more than 700,000 classified documents in 2010 by Chelsea Manning, then an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq known as Bradley, did not prompt the intelligence bureaucracy to adequately plug its holes. Manning has been convicted of espionage and other charges.
Joseph DeTrani, a retired intelligence official who is president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, asked Clapper why the public seemed skeptical about Obama administration claims that the NSA does not spy on Americans in violation of the law.
Clapper cited the challenge of trying to track terrorists and other foreign adversaries who communicate over the same telephone lines, airwaves and Internet servers as Americans. He also cited what he called distorted reporting in the news media for causing misunderstanding.
Journalists examining the surveillance programs that Snowden disclosed "go to the deepest darkest place they can and make the most conspiratorial case for what the intelligence community is doing."
Clapper noted that he spent six years as an intelligence contractor, and he defended the role of private companies working with the intelligence community.
"Contractors continue to serve as a crucial part of the community," he said. "We could not do our mission without you and we need you to stick with us and help us get through this difficult period."
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