NEW YORK -– Director of National Intelligence James Clapper urged former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and his “accomplices” to return leaked documents during a hearing on Wednesday.
"Snowden claims that he’s won and that his mission is accomplished," Clapper said, according to a transcript from the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, posted by the Washington Post. "If that is so, I call on him and his accomplices to facilitate the return of the remaining stolen documents that have not yet been exposed, to prevent even more damage to U.S. security."
So who, exactly, are Snowden’s “accomplices?”
Guardian national security editor Spencer Ackerman, among others, questioned on Twitter whether Clapper was referring to journalists.
HuffPost put the question to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which didn't rule out that journalists could be considered "accomplices."
The office's public affairs director Shawn Turner said in an email that “director Clapper was referring to anyone who is assisting Snowden to further threaten our national security through the unauthorized disclosure of stolen documents related to lawful foreign intelligence collection programs.”
The suggestion that Snowden is conspiring with journalists, rather than acting as their source, has come up ever since the National Security Agency surveillance story broke last spring.
In June, "Meet the Press" host David Gregory asked journalist Glenn Greenwald about having "aided and abetted" Snowden, language that suggests the reporter was a participant in a crime. Earlier this month, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) described Greenwald as Snowden's "accomplice."
Members of Congress and government officials have long claimed, both anonymously and in TV interviews, that China and Russia likely obtained the leaked NSA documents and that Snowden may be a spy. Snowden was the eighth person charged under the Espionage Act for leaking information during the Obama administration.
Despite generating headlines, Snowden's critics haven't provided direct evidence to back up such claims. Last week, Snowden told The New Yorker that allegations he's a Russian spy are "absurd."
But Snowden did provide documents last year to Greenwald, and journalists Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman. The ongoing NSA coverage has detailed the extent of U.S. surveillance and sparked a worldwide debate.
The Guardian, where Greenwald previously worked, provided a subset of the documents to The New York Times and ProPublica. Meanwhile, Poitras and Greenwald, who are believed to have the full set, have continued reporting on specific documents with news organizations around the world. On Monday, for instance, Greenwald co-wrote an NBC News story about how the British government could spy on Facebook and YouTube users.
It doesn’t seem possible that all the documents could be returned by Snowden. Snowden has said he gave what he had to journalists in Hong Kong, so he no longer was carrying the documents when he arrived in Russia, where he remains under temporary asylum.
Still, the idea that Snowden might be capable of securing the leaked information has been floated before by a top government official.
Last month, NSA task force head Rick Ledgett told “60 Minutes” that any conversation with Snowden about amnesty could only take place if there were “assurances that the remainder of the data could be secured.”