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World & Nation

How the U.S. plans to stop the next Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Former U.S. intelligence contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden gives an interview with Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter in Moscow on Oct. 21.

(Lotta Hardelin / AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration released a strategy document Wednesday that officials said is intended to help deter or discover potential leakers of classified information, a delayed response to the sweeping disclosure of U.S. surveillance systems and methods by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in 2013.

The 12-page “National Counterintelligence Strategy" calls for ramping up automated screening of bankruptcy and arrest records for government workers with security clearances, and to upgrade monitoring of government computers to spot signs of theft, among other steps.

“Recent unauthorized public disclosures by trusted insiders have damaged international relationships, compromised intelligence sources, and prompted our adversaries to change their behavior, making it more difficult to understand their intentions," the report states.

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No clear evidence has emerged to indicate Islamic State militants used Snowden’s disclosures to help plan last Friday’s murderous rampage in Paris.

But the extremist group instructs its operatives to use encrypted apps and other secure digital platforms, including some gaming software, to safeguard their communications from government eavesdropping.

The group’s technical experts have issued a video and other material to teach supporters and sympathizers how to communicate in secret. The group recommends which apps to use, warns of phone tracking systems and offers advice on which brands to avoid.

The bloodshed in Paris has renewed the privacy-vs.-security debate that erupted after Snowden, now a fugitive in Russia, leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents to reporters about NSA surveillance programs at home and abroad.

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U.S. and European officials insist they need backdoor access to encrypted apps to track terrorists, while telecommunications and Internet companies argue they need to protect customer data from government spying.

Earlier this week, CIA Director John Brennan said Islamic State and al-Qaida had learned from Snowden’s disclosures about U.S. eavesdropping methods. “They have gone to school on what they need to do in order to keep their activities concealed from the authorities," Brennan told a think tank in Washington. “Their operational security really is quite strong.”

Civil liberties advocates say no evidence indicates French authorities lacked investigative or intelligence authorities that would have helped thwart the attacks.

Some Senate Republicans have cited the Paris attacks to urge Congress to reconsider curbs it ordered on some NSA programs after the Snowden leaks. Most significantly, the NSA’s bulk collection and storage of Americans’ telephone data is scheduled to shift back to telecommunications companies Nov. 29.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said this week his committee will launch a review of encryption.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., introduced a bill to extend the NSA’s telephone data-collection program.

But Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ranking member of the House intelligence committee, supported the new restrictions Wednesday.

“Given the complexity involved in the encryption issue, no actions should be taken in haste by Congress, and these attacks must not be used to justify a sweeping reinstitution of surveillance powers that were just reformed only months ago after years of deliberation and debate," he said.

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The counterintelligence strategy, the first made public since 2009, adds another voice to the debate. The document is not a policy directive so its impact may be limited.

The report encourages federal agencies to use automated systems that check arrest records, bankruptcy filings and social media connections as well as workplace computer use by federal workers to find potential breaches or spies.

brian.bennett@latimes.com

Follow me @ByBrianBennett on Twitter

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