The public remains hotly engaged this week in a necessary debate over NSA domestic surveillance policies, coupled with the recent revelations of government abuses, like the IRS scandal and snooping on journalists.  Meanwhile Edward Snowden, the man who leaked the details behind the NSA’s PRISM program, remains in Hong Kong, awaiting whatever his fate may be.  A separate story seems to be unfolding, after Snowden shared classified records with the South China Morning Post that divulged the IP addresses of computers in Hong Kong and mainland China that were allegedly hacked by the NSA.

New details have also emerged about how Snowden pulled off the massive breach, shedding more light on the extent of the leaks and what documents he may have in his possession.

Snowden was carrying four computers when he arrived in Hong Kong – computers that gave him access to the information he purports to have, of which, according to Snowden and Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, only a small portion has been shared with the public thus far.

We’ve learned that Snowden downloaded NSA documents onto a thumb drive, an item not usually permitted in the facility as standard course of procedure, but for approved exceptions.  That was a crucial discovery, as investigators have indicated that they now “know how many documents he downloaded and what server he took them from,” according to the LA Times.

Briefings between congressional members and intelligence officials earlier in the week have also revealed that Snowden attempted to access other areas of the NSA’s systems that he was not permitted to access.  “It was clear that he attempted to go places that he was not authorized to go, which should raise questions for everyone,” said Representative Mike Rogers, according to The Hill.

National security veterans have been skeptical that Snowden could have been the sole source of everything that has been leaked to date.  Many were surprised to see publication of the FISA court order in particular; one former US counterintelligence official noting that in all of its 35 year existence, there has never been a breach of the FISA court.  That document was not definitively attributed to Snowden in news reports, and Greenwald has declined to specify whether or not Snowden was the only source.  To date, there has been no confirmation that any others were involved.

Another point of focus has been the fact that Snowden actually only worked at Booz Allen for a few weeks before taking an unpaid leave.  When Snowden was no longer able to be located, his employer notified intelligence officials because of his high-level security clearance.

FBI Director Robert Mueller told House Judiciary Committee members that Snowden is now “the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation,” and intelligence officials are handling the matter as a possible case of foreign espionage.  While Snowden selected Hong Kong as his place of refuge for the time being, there is tremendous concern that he might be planning to defect to China and share some of our nation’s intelligence secrets.

From ABC News:

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told reporters today that investigators are trying to determine whether Snowden has links to any foreign nations.

“We need to ask a lot more questions about his motives, his connections, where he ended up, why he is there, how is he sustaining himself while he is there, and [if] the Chinese government [is] fully cooperating,” Rogers said. “I think those would be all great questions to chase down.”

Jeremy Bash, former CIA and Pentagon Chief of Staff, told ABC News today that the possibility of Snowden defecting to China, or even cooperating with Chinese officials, is a top concern for U.S. officials.

“He could do tremendous damage,” Bash said during an interview for the ABC News/Yahoo Power Players series. “I think if a foreign government learned everything that was in Edward Snowden’s brain, they would have a good window into the way we collect signals intelligence… He had access to highly classified information.”

Bloomberg News also described what such an investigation might typically entail.  Ironically, those details highlight the very nature of the issues Americans have been fervently debating.

In addition to interviews with Snowden’s relatives and co-workers, the investigation will include a review of all of his available e-mails, text messages, online postings, telephone calls and other communications, said the two U.S. officials and two former officials familiar with counterintelligence investigative procedures.

The inquiry will also seek to determine his movements by searching for geo-location records from mobile phones and other devices he used, the officials said. They all asked not to be identified discussing the loss of top-secret intelligence and possible avenues of investigation.

When the leak first went public, Snowden had parsed his words in his explanation of his choice of Hong Kong as his refuge, saying, “I mean, there are conflicts between the United States government and the Chinese PRC government but the peoples inherently, we don’t care.”  He has since told the South China Morning Post that he intends to let the people of Hong Kong decide his fate.

This is true; the people between countries don’t necessarily share any defined animosity.  However, the relationship between the governments of China and the US is a little more complicated than that.  And the history is very relevant in this case.

The reality is, the two countries have been engaged in an often tense back and forth exchange of cyber espionage for years.  Over the last several years, the US has ramped up defensive and offensive cybersecurity operations, in response to cyber espionage attacks from China on US national defense and economic targets, among others.

A report released by the Pentagon in May was more direct in its accusations against China, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While American officials have long charged that China is a top perpetrator of cyberespionage, a new Pentagon report goes a step further, blaming some cyberintrusions directly on the government and its military.

The report also outlined Chinese investments in new Navy ships, advanced fighter planes and so-called anti-access military systems—those aimed at keeping ships and other forces out of an area. The report said China’s cyberespionage was designed to benefit China’s defense and technology industry and to gain insight into U.S. policy makers’ thinking on China.

“China is using its computer network exploitation capability to support intelligence collection against the U.S. diplomatic, economic, and defense industrial base sectors that support U.S. national defense programs,” according to the report, an annual assessment prepared at the direction of Congress.

That report also detailed that Chinese hackers had gained access to the designs of more than two dozen major U.S. weapons systems, which included “those for combat aircraft and ships, as well as missile defenses vital for Europe, Asia and the Gulf,” according to NBC News.  An earlier report from private security company Mandiant also identified intrusions and theft of documents from over 100 companies, most of them in the US, perpetrated by China’s People’s Liberation Army.  Those incidents were confirmed by US officials.

That information came on the heels of the discovery that faculty members at Shanghai Jiaotong University in China had been collaborating for years with a People’s Liberation Army unit on technical research papers.

In a 2009 article published by the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute, James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies explained why China’s hacking is a primary security threat to the United States.

“[Hacking] already is a main security threat up there with terrorism,” Lewis says. “What people have trouble understanding sometimes is that it is a different type of security threat. Terrorists want to blow things up, while hackers want to commit espionage.”

Explosions are devastating of course, but cyber attacks could be even more disruptive and dangerous.  Espionage via hacking could jeopardize national security in many ways.

So what is the relationship between the Chinese government and Chinese hackers? Lewis thinks that the fact that there have been very few instances where the Chinese government has condemned the actions of its own hackers hints at their implicit approval.

“A lot of these hackers are in some ways linked to, or employed by the Chinese government… It’s not something that’s being done without the consent of the Chinese government,” Lewis says.

The type of information that is hacked is evidence suggesting that the Chinese government plays a role in these cyber attacks.

Snowden’s presence in Hong Kong, given the confidential NSA information to which he had access, highlights the concerns that China could potentially exploit him to gain more intelligence, thus elevating an already legitimate threat to US security.

And this is where the NSA leak story reached a potential turning point, spawning a related but separate story.

The cyber espionage  issue was compounded Friday when Snowden shared classified US government records with the Post, providing details about the specific alleged hacking targets and methods.  He also elaborated further, “We hack network backbones like huge Internet routers, basically that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers.”

But Snowden also told the Post that he was not in the know on what the US was looking for, only that he thought it was wrong.  “I don’t know what specific information they were looking for on these machines, only that using technical exploits to gain unauthorised access to civilian machines is a violation of law. It’s ethically dubious.”

No mention from him in that interview of the cyber-attacks the US has been enduring at the hands of Chinese hackers.

The Global Times, a state-backed Chinese newspaper, ran an editorial Friday that seems to legitimize US concerns.  The Washington Post reported key quotes from the editorial.

“Snowden took the initiative to expose the U.S. government’s attacks on Hong Kong and the mainland’s Internet networks. This concerns China’s national interest,” the commentary said. “Maybe he has more evidence. The Chinese government should let him speak out and according to whether the information is public, use it as evidence to negotiate with the United States openly or in private.”

[…]

“Snowden took the initiative to expose the U.S. government’s attacks on Hong Kong and the mainland’s Internet networks. This concerns China’s national interest,” the commentary said. “Maybe he has more evidence. The Chinese government should let him speak out and according to whether the information is public, use it as evidence to negotiate with the United States openly or in private.”

The paper said that the Chinese government should not only consider Beijing’s relations with the United States but also the opinion of its domestic public, which the paper said would be unhappy if Snowden were sent back.

“We have realized the United States’ aggressiveness in cyberspace, we have realized that nine Internet companies have assisted the U.S. government in intelligence outsourcing,” said the paper known for a nationalist stance. “We have realized their hypocrisy in saying one thing and doing another, and we have realized their ruthlessness in doing what they please with no regard for other people.”

“China is a rising power, and it deserves corresponding respect from the United States,” it said.

Some of the sentiment in the editorial echoed that of Snowden himself, who told the Post earlier in the week that he went public about US hacking efforts against China to demonstrate “the hypocrisy of the US government when it claims that it does not target civilian infrastructure, unlike its adversaries”.  The disclosure not only concerned intelligence officials, but it also sparked an avalanche of criticism of the US from Chinese bloggers and on Chinese social media.

It is important to understand the complexities of the relationship between the US and China when it comes to the issue of cyber-espionage.  It is not a black and white issue, and the information currently being disclosed to the public represents a very one-sided picture that fails to provide any context of the challenges the US is facing in this cyber conflict.  It’s an ongoing conflict that could have at any time (and has, in some cases)  jeopardized our economic foundation, diplomatic relations, and military defenses and personnel.

Edward Snowden brought to the forefront of the public’s attention the activities and concerns about the NSA’s domestic surveillance policies.  Whether or not you agree with the methods in which he chose to do so, the nation is engaged in a necessary public debate about it.  This is a good thing.

Snowden could have stopped there and let the focus remain on that debate.  But for reasons known only to Edward Snowden, he then proceeded – from his refuge in Hong Kong – to share some of our nation’s classified information with contacts in a country against which the US is actively engaged in defending itself.  And that has spawned an entirely separate set of concerns.  And likely a separate debate over government secrecy and national security versus transparency in the midst of conflict between countries.

Perhaps as more of the facts come out, there will be reasonable explanations for these actions.  I can’t help but be skeptical, yet there is still so much we do not know.

But as this investigation progresses, we should be prepared to ask ourselves if we’re comfortable leaving the power to expose, and the discretion to know what needs exposing, solely in the hands of a single ex-NSA contracted systems administrator.  Edward Snowden is currently taking actions that will no doubt have consequences that will affect us all.  Whether the outcome is good or bad for the US remains to be seen.