This week's publication of 8,761 CIA documents by Wikileaks could prove to be as damaging as the 2013 release of NSA documents by Edward Snowden, said General David Petraeus, the former CIA director and top U.S. commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, during an interview with KPCC.
Petraeus said in part it's because the documents detail the U.S.'s ability to spy through internet connected devices, including cellphones and smart TVs, alerting "folks out there who are trying to conceal what it is they might be doing for nefarious reasons" that they could be discovered.
"It clearly is on the order of the damage done by Snowden," he said.
Petraeus, who teaches international affairs at the University of Southern California, made the comments Wednesday at The Montgomery Summit, a gathering of venture capitalists and tech companies in Santa Monica.
He said the CIA leak could also be a setback for the intelligence agencies' efforts to gain cooperation from tech companies.
"This will damage the relationship that was being reestablished with IT companies in the wake of the Snowden revelations," Petraeus said. "They did enormous damage to those relationships and there was a rebuilding process that was going on, and I’m afraid this could set that back a bit."
Wikileaks stated one of its reasons for publishing the documents was to highlight for tech companies how their systems are at risk.
"As long as the CIA keeps these vulnerabilities concealed from Apple and Google" who make the cellphones, Wikileaks wrote, "they will not be fixed, and the phones will remain hackable."
"I think it's a fair concern," Petraeus said. "I'm not going to get into details of the back and forth between IT companies."
Asked about concerns that the CIA could be using tools revealed in the documents to carry out surveillance on American citizens, Petraeus referred to a statement the CIA released Wednesday, which denied that it happened and pointed out it can't legally use the hacking methods on Americans. It did not confirm the legitimacy of the published documents.
Petraeus resigned from the CIA in 2012 after it was revealed he was having an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, and shared classified documents with her. He was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay a $100,000 fine in 2015.
What keeps Petraeus up at night
Asked what threats to U.S. national security most keep him up at night, Petraeus said Islamic extremists and cyber vulnerabilities that leave America's electrical grid and other infrastructure vulnerable to terrorists. He is also concerned about North Korea developing a nuclear-equipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S.
"That's a threat that I know is occupying those who are in very significant positions in the new administration," Petraeus said.
Petraeus, who met with President Trump in December and was considered for the post of National Security Adviser after General Michael Flynn resigned, said he is also concerned about dysfunction in Washington. But despite all the threats and challenges the country faces, Petraeus said he remains bullish on America's future.
"At the end of the day I'm what you might term a 'rational optimistic,"' Petraeus said, borrowing a term from a 2011 book that argues human prosperity will continue to improve. "I do believe we can come to grips with the issues that confront us."