Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked as many as 200,000 classified U.S. documents to the media, according to little-noticed public remarks by the eavesdropping agency's chief late last month.

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

In a question-and-answer session following a speech to a foreign affairs group in Baltimore on Oct. 31, NSA Director General Keith Alexander was asked by a member of the audience what steps U.S. authorities were taking to stop Snowden from leaking additional information to journalists.

"I wish there was a way to prevent it. Snowden has shared somewhere between 50 (thousand) and 200,000 documents with reporters. These will continue to come out," Alexander said.

Alexander added that the documents were "being put out in a way that does the maximum damage to NSA and our nation," according to a transcript of his talk made available by NSA.

U.S. officials briefed on investigations into Snowden's activities have said privately for months that internal government assessments indicate that the number of classified documents to which Snowden got access as a systems operator at NSA installations ran into the hundreds of thousands.

Officials said that while investigators now believe they know the range of documents that Snowden accessed, they remain unsure which documents he downloaded for leaking to the media.

By comparison, the number of Pentagon and State Department documents leaked to WikiLeaks by a disgruntled U.S. Army private was much larger. The anti-secrecy group obtained around 400,000 Pentagon reports on the Iraq war, as well as 250,000 State Department cables and tens of thousands of documents on U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

None of the WikiLeaks material was classified higher than "Secret" but many NSA documents leaked by Snowden were marked "Top Secret" or with an even more restrictive "Special Intelligence" stamp. The material includes highly technical details on U.S. and allied eavesdropping activities.

Snowden's revelations, which first surfaced in June, are still causing a headache for the government of President Barack Obama, particularly in its dealing with allies.

‘War of the worlds’

In his speech, the spy chief touched upon reports that the NSA had recorded more than 70 million telephone calls of French citizens over a 30 day period. In an attempt to allay fears the NSA is eavesdropping on French civilians, Alexander said the data gathering was aimed at supporting NATO-related activities.

“None of that information was collected in France, on French people or European citizens,” he said. Le Monde, the French publication that originally received the information on the NSA’s spy activities in France from Snowden said they had reason to believe that US espionage was not only aimed at combatting terrorism, but also targeted high-profile politicians and business figures.

Alexander described the uproar caused in the wake of the leaks released by Snowden in Europe “huge.”

“And it's interesting. It's almost like ‘the War of the Worlds,’” he added.

Snowden’s revelations caused rifts to develop between the US and its traditional European allies. A special EU delegation went to Washington at the end of October to demand an explanation for the reports of mass espionage on EU citizens. Additionally, Germany sent a separate delegation to get answers over allegations that the NSA listened in on the personal communications of Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

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