Edward Snowden, the now-former NSA contractor who leaked secret documents to The Washington Post and the Guardian, said he didn’t want to become the story. “I don’t want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the US government is doing,” he told The Guardian.
But Edward Snowden dumped a bunch of documents, made a lot of claims, and then fled. He’s the only one who can clarify or confirm the statements he’s made, or demonstrate his comprehension for what’s in the documents he leaked, and he’s made himself unavailable to do so. The public is trying to collect and digest all the facts, and some still have questions.
So, fair or not, the story turns to Edward Snowden, and to a few of those discrepancies that some in the public are trying to understand.
1) Edward Snowden didn’t make $200,000 a year.
Booz Allen Hamilton says the annual salary it paid Snowden was $122,000, not the $200,000 Snowden has asserted. The company also confirms that it has since terminated Snowden for violations of the firm’s code of ethics and firm policy.
A chief reporter for The Guardian called that “a small difference,” and said that everything else Snowden has said so far has been accurate, that “the big stuff has been totally bang on,” according to Talking Points Memo in quoting from an MSNBC segment.
But the Washington Post, the other outlet with which Snowden was communication, has made edits to its prior reporting on the story. See #2.
2) The NSA surveillance program capabilities asserted by Snowden may have been overstated.
Some of the most disturbing capabilities of the surveillance program that were initially reported in the Washington Post and Guardian articles are now said to have been misleading. The Washington Post has since inconspicuously corrected some of those details, while Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story for The Guardian, has doubled down in defending his outlet’s reporting.
From The Week:
Both newspapers reported that PRISM gave the NSA “direct access” to the servers of nine internet giants, including Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. Those tech companies “participate knowingly” in the program, The Washington Post said, which lets the NSA reach deep inside the U.S. companies’ machines to extract “audio, video, photographs, emails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.”
That sounds scandalous, but, “it turns out, the NSA PRISM story isn’t quite the bombshell that everyone said it was,” says Bob Cesca at The Daily Banter. There are certainly reasons to be very concerned about government electronic surveillance, says Cesca, “but the reporting from [The Guardian's] Glenn Greenwald and The Washington Post has been shoddy and misleading.”
The first sign that something wasn’t right with the story was that the tech companies strongly denied that government snoops had any access to their servers. Then, “a funny thing happened,” says Ed Bott at ZDNet: Quietly — without issuing any clarification or correction — “The Post revised the story, backing down from sensational claims it made originally.” Gone was the phrase “participate knowingly.” The phrase “track a person’s movements and contacts over time” was changed to “track foreign targets.” Also erased: The claim that the NSA is “tapping directly into the central servers” of Silicon Valley giants.
ZDNet has more on this in its post titled, The real story in the NSA scandal is the collapse of journalism.
One thing to note however, is that Snowden’s claims about the secret inner-workings of the NSA surveillance program (that itself was public knowledge) was not new. Another former NSA employee, William Binney, who resigned in protest over what he believed were abuses of the surveillance program, also asserted many of the same or similar claims about the program’s capabilities and how it was being used.
Was Snowden familiar with Binney’s prior claims, and are they related to the same program?
3) Snowden may have had help.
Federal investigators say they aren’t convinced that Snowden worked alone. A source told ABC News, “The FBI is not 100 percent focused on this one guy…Agents are not just guided by what he claims.” And some in the industry are very skeptical that Snowden himself could have had access to all that has been leaked.
From ABC News:
Since Snowden’s public confession late Sunday, neither Greenwald nor the other reporters involved in the stories have mentioned a second source, but investigators noted that in his confession, Snowden never explicitly stated which documents he handed over to the newspapers.
National security veterans said they’re skeptical, for example, that Snowden, a private information technology contractor working for the NSA in Hawaii, could have had access to a Top Secret order from the super-secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. That order, which compelled Verizon to hand over phone call information on millions of its customers to the government, was the basis of Greenwald’s first report late last week.
“It makes no sense to me,” a former U.S. counterintelligence official said. According to insiders, there has never been such a breach of the FISA court in all of its 35-year existence.
Glenn Greenwald also told ABC News’ “This Week” that he is “not going to confirm there is only one individual – there could be more than one,” according to the same ABC News article.
4) Snowden was on the radar before he was publicly identified as the leaker.
From The Next Web:
Corresponding online with The Post’s Barton Gellman right before the first expose was published, Snowden said:
“The police already visited my house [in Hawaii] this morning. It obviously has a profound and intimidating impact on my family.”
While we know authorities visited his family, it had been assumed that had taken place after the leaks, so to hear otherwise is interesting and it shows that the government had some lead time before PRISM went public.
Perhaps, as The Next Web ponders, the Post triggered the authorities’ interests in Snowden when it “sought the views of government officials about the potential harm to national security prior to publication.”
Snowden’s disappearance did catch the attention of authorities, according to the Daily Beast.
Snowden’s disappearance in May was immediately noticed by the directorate, and when The Guardian published the first court order and then documents associated with a program called PRISM, Snowden immediately became the leading suspect in the leak, the intelligence sources said, adding that the FBI was now investigating the leak as well.
Did Snowden’s activities related specifically to the recent leak trigger the attention of authorities? Or had he been on the radar before this?
5) Snowden’s timeline of employment and contact with journalists is confusing, as was his access level.
This has been clarified to some extent, but that’s raised additional questions.
Booz Allen said in its statement that Snowden was employed there for less than three months. Prior to Booz Allen, Snowden says he was with Dell as a contractor, working for the NSA. This prompted confusion from some about where Snowden was working when he first began leaking to the press.
In trying to clarify Snowden’s employment timeline for the public, Greenwald tweeted that Snowden has “worked for multiple contractors since 2009, continuously at the NSA.” Indeed, as Greenwald later indicated, rotating between contractors is not uncommon; it’s also not uncommon to work for the same client (in this case, the NSA).
The Guardian indicated in its June 9th article revealing Snowden as the leaker that three weeks prior, Snowden made his final preparations and copied the last set of documents to be disclosed, then left the US for Hong Kong on May 20th.
A Salon report states that “Laura Poitras and [Greenwald] have been working with [Snowden] since February, long before anyone spoke to Bart Gellman [who broke the Washington Post story].”
But as others have asked, how did an IT contractor in Snowden’s position have the sort of access to the information that was leaked to these journalists? A breach of the FISA court that’s never happened in all of its 35-year existence? Did Snowden alone have access to that, or did he have help? And was he talking to anyone else? Did he fully comprehend the contents of the documents he accessed?
Depending upon the answers to or clarification of some of these things, and more to come, the motives in this story become more relevant and it might cause some to scrutinize facts more closely.
By all means, we can and should be concerned about surveillance of innocent Americans’ communications. But before blindly taking everything as fact, and rushing to place a label upon an individual, we have a duty to ourselves to make sure that we have and understand all the facts (all that we can possibly obtain when dealing with discussion of classified materials, at least).
We can still debate the policy of surveillance and its risks over the benefits, while at the same time applying healthy skepticism to the details and motives in this story where it’s warranted – the two aren’t mutually exclusive.