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Rep. Chris Stewart calls Edward Snowden 'destructive traitor'

FILE - Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, declares victory in the 2nd Congressional District race on election night in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. At right is his wife Evie Stewart.
FILE - Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, declares victory in the 2nd Congressional District race on election night in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. At right is his wife Evie Stewart.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Chris Stewart called former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden one of the most "destructive traitors" in American history Tuesday.

Responding to a question during his national security conference at the University of Utah, Stewart said anyone who defends Snowden doesn't understand what he did to the nation's security.

"For those who defend Edward Snowden, perhaps there was some value in making some things known to us, but I assure you he's one of the most destructive traitors that America has ever seen in our history," the Utah Republican said.

Snowden, who leaked classified documents exposing government surveillance, is scheduled to speak by video from his apartment in Russia at a cyber security conference in Park City on Dec. 5.

Stewart said Snowden is "masterful at playing to a willing press," which has allowed him a "huge microphone."

The question about Snowden arose during a panel discussion on cyber security that included Dave Winberg, director of the NSA Utah Data Center, and retired Army Gen. Jennifer Napper.

"I don't think we have any idea what we're going to hear from Edward Snowden," Winberg said.

Winberg, reading from prepared comments, said threats to national security are real and growing fast. Because allies and enemies share the same computer networks, the U.S. has never been more vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Winberg, a 28-year NSA veteran, acknowledged that his bosses edited and approved his remarks for the conference.

"We're not a group of people you're going to see in front of microphones very often," he said.

The controversial data center in Bluffdale is often referred to as a "spy" center. But Stewart said that's a mischaracterization. He said the center does language translation and analyzes and interprets data.

"More important is telling people what they're not doing — that is, they're not collecting Facebook and texts and emails on every single American," he said, adding he too had wondered what goes on there.

Stewart said he has urged NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers to tell the public more about the data center.

"I think we can be more open with the American people," he said.

Some of the information Snowden took would "make your head explode" and had nothing to do with personal privacy, Stewart said. He called Snowden a "grave risk" to national security.

Computer hackers — from bored teenagers to terrorists — threaten national security and individuals as never before, panelists said. And Napper said the country doesn't have a clear strategy for responding to cyberattacks.

"The attackers look for exactly one vulnerability — they only have to find one — and then they're in. They gain unauthorized access to whatever it is they're trying to get to, whether that's intellectual property, national security information or your bank account," she said.

Napper, now a vice president at Unisys, said national leaders haven't been able to agree on a way to deter hacking.

Stewart said cyberattacks have gone from a bread box to a football stadium in scope in the past couple of years.

"This is something that has accelerated so quickly that we haven't had time yet to really catch up to it and formulate a strategy to deal with this threat that is so big now," he said.

And Stewart said whether a cyberattack or a conventional military assault on the U.S. is more worrisome depends on the latest intelligence briefing.

"You see rockets coming, you know who did that, and you know how you're going to respond, and they know how you're going to respond. Cyber? You may not know where it comes from. They're masterful at masking it. And then the question is: How do you respond?" he said.

Scott Simpson, president and CEO of the Utah Credit Union Association, talked about cyberattacks on a personal level.

Utah's largest credit union has 13 employees dedicated to cyber security who fend off 101,000 attempts a day to penetrate its computer system.

The state's second largest credit union has written off $6.8 million in fraudulent credit card transactions since 2013, including $2 million so far this year.

And those institutions are small. The combined assets of the 72 credit unions in Utah are roughly the same as Zions Bank, Simpson said.

Despite constant vigilance to protect the network connections between financial institutions and their customers, he said, cyberattacks have reached a tipping point where consumer confidence in retail payment systems is waning.

"If you think you're safe, that tells me you don't have a cellphone, you don't have a computer, you don't have a bank account, you don’t have a credit card," Stewart added.

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