The military has been taking added steps to safeguard its cyber-secrets but there will always be Edward Snowdens in the mix who are willing to risk jail to break through the security screens, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday.
"I don't know how you can ever completely guard against someone who wants to break the law," Hagel said at a Pentagon news conference with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Without giving specifics, Hagel said "Yes, there was damage done" to national security by Snowden, who worked for a contractor to the National Security Agency and leaked vast amounts of data on NSA surveillance of phone records and Internet activity.
Snowden passed on his information to the British newspaper, The Guardian, before fleeing to Hong Kong. On Monday he flew from Hong Kong to Moscow with legal assistance from the WikiLeaks organization and reportedly is seeking asylum in Ecuador. But he could likely be in Moscow for several months while Ecuador considers his application.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said in a news conference in Malaysia that Snowden's case was similar to that of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been given asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.
"It took us two months to make a decision in the case of Assange, so do not expect us to make a decision sooner this time," Patino said.
The Snowden case has added friction to the already difficult relationship between Moscow and Washington, with both countries already at odds on Syria, missile defense and other matters.
"I would hope that the Russians do the right thing here and turn Snowden over to the United States," Hagel said.
"We have a relationship with Russia that has equal parts of common interest and friction," Dempsey said. "We're going to put this (Snowden) on the negative side of the ledger and we've got to work through this."
The relationship with Russia has also been complicated by the need of the U.S. for Moscow's cooperation in the withdrawal of combat forces and their equipment from Afghanistan.
The U.S. is partly reliant on Russian rail transport for moving equipment along northern routes out of Afghanistan. The U.S. also has plans to leave the Afghan National Security forces with adequate helicopter support, and the plans call for the Afghans to be supplied with Russian-made Mi17 helicopters.
On Syria, Russia has been the main international backer of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, giving him weapons and crucial political support in the United Nations, while the U.S. only recently has agreed to begin supplying small arms to moderates among the fractious rebel opposition.
In addition to arming the rebels, "Militarily what we're doing is assisting the partners in the region" – primarily Jordan and Turkey – with small teams of trainers to "make sure they're able to account for the spillover effects" of the Syrian civil war, Dempsey said.
Dempsey has long been skeptical of imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, as advocated by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others, but he said that the U.S. was capable of grounding Assad's air forces with standoff missiles and bombing runs preceded by radar-jamming aircraft.
"It will be difficult because the Syrian are defense system is sophisticated and dense," Dempsey said, but "we can, if asked to do so, establish a no-fly zone." Dempsey added that setting up a no-fly zone could be considered an act of war and "I'd like to understand the plan to make peace before we start a war."