As the NSA story continues to grip the headlines, more facts are coming to light, both about the information that was leaked and about the leaker himself.
Edward Snowden spoke to the South China Morning Post in an exclusive interview Wednesday, resulting in a series of articles that rolled out throughout the day. The Post dropped a bombshell when it revealed that Snowden shared documents that show “the NSA had been hacking computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland since 2009.”
The new leak comes at an interesting juncture. The US has launched a criminal probe into the matter, and Snowden released this information amidst his claims that the US is “bullying” Hong Kong to extradite him.
That leaves many questioning Snowden’s current motives.
This reads a bit as if Snowden is offering to help the Chinese understand how the U.S. is spying on them: http://t.co/Wm5YIawhG4
— Jeffrey Goldberg (@JeffreyGoldberg) June 12, 2013
The former NSA contractor claims that there have been “more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally, with hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and on the mainland,” according to the Post. He went on to share more.
“We hack network backbones – like huge internet routers, basically – that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,” he said.
“Last week the American government happily operated in the shadows with no respect for the consent of the governed, but no longer. Every level of society is demanding accountability and oversight.”
Snowden said he was releasing the information to demonstrate “the hypocrisy of the US government when it claims that it does not target civilian infrastructure, unlike its adversaries”.
The revelation that the US employs an elite team of hackers to counter China’s cyber-espionage efforts is not entirely new news. The US has long alleged that China aggressively uses hackers to steal our government, military, and commercial secrets, and has made little bones about fighting back. Still, the US keeps its playbook secret and doesn’t show its hand.
Snowden’s statements are especially concerning, for they reveal an individual who has shared our nation’s documents on counter cyber-espionage with another country. Albeit, it’s their press, but we can’t know yet to what extent he’s been sharing the information with others there.
The words also have an air of threat about them. And they bear a striking resemblance to those of senior Chinese officials who have in recent weeks accused the US of…hypocrisy on cyber-espionage.
Many will argue, “Snowden isn’t the story.” But with these recent revelations, the picture has changed. It’s difficult not to focus scrutiny on Edward Snowden.
Only days ago, Foreign Policy reported on the history of some of these cyber-espionage operations in the US, including its location at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland – the very headquarters near which Edward Snowden received his training in April for the first week or two of his employment with contractor Booz Allen.
As it would turn out, Snowden would only work four weeks with the contractor, not three months, before requesting an unpaid leave. But after extending his absence once already, Booz Allen was forced to contact intelligence authorities when it was unable to locate Snowden.
Snowden already had a Top Secret clearance before he joined Booz Allen in April, two sources said, adding that he likely obtained that clearance – which involves passing a polygraph exam – when he previously worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.
For his first week or two with Booz Allen, Snowden attended training sessions near Fort Meade, the Maryland military installation where NSA headquarters is located and where numerous agency contractors have offices.
After that, Snowden moved to take up his assignment with a company team based at the NSA installation in Hawaii. He was only on the job for around four weeks when he told his employers he was ill and requested leave without pay, the sources said.
When Booz Allen checked in with him, Snowden said he was suffering from epilepsy and needed more time off. When he failed to return after a longer period, and the company could not find him, it notified intelligence officials because of Snowden’s high-level security clearance, one of the sources said.
Government agents spent several days in the field trying to find Snowden, according to the source, but they were unable to do so before the first news story based on Snowden’s revelations appeared in the Guardian and then in the Washington Post.
The government did not know Snowden was the source for the stories until he admitted it on Sunday, the sources said.
Because he requested leave based on an illness, it’s very possible that Snowden was on the books as an employee for the full three months until he was officially terminated. But it’s important to differentiate that he only physically worked there for four weeks, some of those weeks in training. And even more important to realize that when he was unable to be located, this caused enough concern for Booz Allen to notify intelligence officials – because of Snowden’s high-level security clearance.
In other words, he was viewed as a potential risk.
Once Snowden’s identity was revealed as the NSA story unfolded, the public was informed that the former NSA contractor had left the US. His choice of Hong Kong as a refuge raised eyebrows for many. Despite Snowden’s claims that its “strong tradition of free speech” inspired him to choose Hong Kong, worries that he might be sharing confidential information with a country engaged in a digital battle with ours now appear justified.
The ordeal also comes just on the heels of a diplomatic tussle between the two countries, as President Obama and China’s newly elected leader, Xi Jinping, recently met in California. China was not happy that Obama suddenly chose to highlight cybersecurity. From Foreign Policy on June 10th:
Then, two weeks ago, White House officials leaked to the press that Obama intended to raise privately with Xi the highly contentious issue of China’s widespread use of computer hacking to steal U.S. government, military, and commercial secrets. According to a Chinese diplomat in Washington who spoke in confidence, Beijing was furious about the sudden elevation of cybersecurity and Chinese espionage on the meeting’s agenda. According to a diplomatic source in Washington, the Chinese government was even angrier that the White House leaked the new agenda item to the press before Washington bothered to tell Beijing about it.
So the Chinese began to hit back. Senior Chinese officials have publicly accused the U.S. government of hypocrisy and have alleged that Washington is also actively engaged in cyber-espionage. When the latest allegation of Chinese cyber-espionage was leveled in late May in a front-page Washington Post article, which alleged that hackers employed by the Chinese military had stolen the blueprints of over three dozen American weapons systems, the Chinese government’s top Internet official, Huang Chengqing, shot back that Beijing possessed “mountains of data” showing that the United States has engaged in widespread hacking designed to steal Chinese government secrets. This weekend’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s PRISM and Verizon metadata collection from a 29-year-old former CIA undercover operative named Edward J. Snowden, who is now living in Hong Kong, only add fuel to Beijing’s position.
Edward Snowden’s public accusations against the US and the revelation that he has apparently shared documents while in Hong Kong are more cause for concern than simply a leaker’s choice of refuge location.
Not surprisingly, the recent days have turned suspicion on Snowden, as inconsistencies have begun to surface in his story.
The Washington Post, one of two outlets to first break Snowden’s story, quietly retracted some of the leaker’s initial claims about the capabilities of the PRISM program.
And in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Wednesday, Senator Susan Collins addressed claims made by Snowden in the press, in which he’d said that, sitting from his desk, he could “wiretap anyone, from you or your account to a federal judge to even the president.” Collins asked NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander if such claims were true.
“False. I know of no way to do that,” Alexander responded.
There are also the circumstances under which Snowden decided to leave loved ones behind. While he may have intended plausible deniability, it’s hard to imagine under any circumstance where it’s acceptable to abandon a girlfriend with whom you lived, and leave her behind to fend off frenzied media and feds all by herself without any notice or goodbye. And while some will speculate that she must have known and he’s simply not acknowledging that, it’s not any better a scenario. Either way, it’s not as noble a portrait as he’s painted of himself.
It’s relevant because it speaks to moral character. What else might this person do while in China that could potentially harm our country or paralyze our relationships with others?
Americans are re-engaged in a discussion about the NSA’s surveillance policies, regardless of where you stand on the issue. And that’s a good thing. But in light of the latest actions taken by Edward Snowden, he may be undermining any good he’s done. And harming his own credibility.
There is a fine line sometimes between whistleblowing and sharing national security secrets that may harm your country.
You can argue that the story isn’t about Snowden. That was true to some extent at first. But once some of the inconsistencies began to trickle out, it would be irresponsible not to seek out the facts. After all, if you’re going to oppose a controversial surveillance policy and the capabilities that support it, doesn’t it behoove us to fully and accurately comprehend what we’re opposing?
People can take a stance on a program or policy without having to share the same stance on the man who leaked it. As I’ve written before, the two are not mutually exclusive. To be sure, the focus of the story is the issue of government surveillance and the national debate that comes with that.
But Edward Snowden has now made himself the other story. By sharing documents and information with China as he has, coupled with the nature of the statements he’s making, many Americans are holding their collective breath.
Will he go too far? Has he already?