Retired admiral calls NSA leaks by Edward Snowden a 'data breach' and 'crisis'

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Adm. Mike Mullen, U.S. Navy (retired), called the leaks coming from former CIA employee Edward Snowden about the National Security Agency's role in intelligence collection a "huge breach" that undermines the country's security.

Snowden leaked information to the press that the NSA is working directly with telecommunications firms to collect call metadata in the U.S. and with the social-networking giants such as Facebook and Google, among others, to mine all manner of personal data available through their services. In the wake of these leaks about the NSA, the U.S. government has rushed to explain it is targeting foreign individuals, not U.S. citizens or anyone in the U.S. Much remains murky in all this, and Snowden, said to be in Hong Kong though perhaps on his way to Iceland for refuge, is expected to leak even more information about the NSA soon.

[ RELATED:Debate rages over revelation of NSA spying secrets]

"I'm extremely concerned he did it," said Mullen, answering a question about Snowden after his keynote address at the Gartner Security and Risk Management Summit. Mullen, formerly chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a few days ago accepted a position on the board of Sprint once Sprint's merger with SoftBank is completed. He said Snowden's disclosures about NSA constitute a "huge breach" and a "crisis," and he's concerned about the "damage has been done and the potential damage." He didn't elaborate further.

But Mullen acknowledged that the issues of NSA surveillance and data collection is going to now be a topic for public debate, adding he didn't expect to see in the political world the kind of expression against it from both Congress and the public on both the left and the right, which he viewed as somewhat "extreme."

However, he said it's clear there is going to be a legislative debate in the country. "Because of this leak, the debate will continue. America gets to be included in this debate," Mullen said. But he urged people to be "principled about the security we care about as we have this debate."

During his keynote, Mullen called the cyberthreat to this country from attackers something that threatens the existence of America. "It can literally change our life so we can't recover."

Mullen said that his own computer had been compromised last year in what's believed to be cyberespionage. "I was penetrated," he noted. Last December, it was disclosed that Mullen, who keeps an office at the Naval Institute, was cooperating in an investigation undertaken by the FBI that involves suspected foreign cyberespionage on his computer.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: @MessmerE. Email: emessmer@nww.com.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

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