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Five Clarifications We Can’t Ask of Edward Snowden

Five Clarifications We Can’t Ask of Edward Snowden

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.


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Thanks, Professor, for the results of the early smell test of this story. Thanks also for your clearly stated reasons for the failure of this story to withstand any scrutiny at all.

    Please thank Mandy Nagy, who wrote this piece.

    It seems to me that there is a circling of the wagons to assure the safety of some media privileges. I am not at all sure that this second-hand data from Booz Allen or about Prism is any better than what was printed in the Guardian. For all we know, Snowden had more than one job or Dell paid him more or he was counting his girlfriend’s wages. Just because Facebook, Google, et al denied participating does not make it so.

There sure are a lot of people out there trying to convince us that this super-duper-top secret program is no BFD and Snowden is a liar.

Can we trust them more than Snowden?

    Can we trust them more than Snowden? In short, nope.

    But I think we can ask questions and get more facts before making a definitive judgment. Technology is not something most media outlets typically interpret and convey well. Not faulting anyone for that, but it’s a complicated subject. So we’re currently hostage to all the regurgitated interpretations of other people rather than cold, hard facts.

    I can oppose the policy of the government’s mass collection of my communications, while at the same time seek out more facts instead of just relying upon the claims and interpretations of some 29 year old that I know nothing about. Personally, I want to understand at a much deeper technical level (as someone with a somewhat technical background) exactly what our government has been doing with this data so that I can be more informed to speak out when such policies are proposed in the future. Challenging Snowden’s claims and interpretations, for me, are simply part of the process in trying to separate fact from fiction.

as for 2)
I’ve seen a story that Google was “in talks” to have a “spy room”

Thanks for the sober reporting on this, LC!

So much hype and hysteria surrounding this story has clouded many of the issues. As I’ve said all along, any story broken by a known fabricator like Greenwald needs to be carefully considered – and the default position for an objective observer should be skepticism.

No low-level employee at a satellite office has access to FISA Court orders. You can’t just print out copies of stuff at the office and take them home without leaving a trail, either. Snowden is either a super-hacker or he had someone up the chain passing him the documents. The likelihood seems the latter.

And all these people calling Snowden a “hero” should stop a minute and wonder why Putin would publicly invite him to apply for asylum in Russia.

    BannedbytheGuardian in reply to Estragon. | June 11, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    I read it that when asked – a spokesperson said a request would be considered. That is typical diplo speak.

    In short he would have to hand over significant docs to Russia on interview & then Putin could dump him anyway .

    Not nearly a given. Putin only has half a deck but he plays them well.

Henry Hawkins | June 11, 2013 at 4:53 pm

One doesn’t need access to FISA court warrant applications. They’ve approved 34,000 and denied 11. 99.9% approval rate on federal FISA court warrant applications. It’s a rubber stamp, merely the appearance of judicial oversight.

Snowden isn’t the story no matter what he is or isn’t. Greenwald isn’t the story either. Nor Putin. Nor China.

The story is that the same administration that had no problems deploying the IRS as a political attack machine set against American citizens also has total control of PRISM. Whatever PRISM’s capabilities, it would be a powerful tool for political blackmail and coercion. That is the story, not the heroism or kabuki games involved in focusing the light on the NSA and PRISM.

Yes, by all means let’s make this about Snowden because well you know that all true Americans believe we should let our government spy on us for any reason or none. It _matters_ how much Snowden was paid. I suppose he probably includede bonuses any overtime into his estimate of his earnings so _that_ lets the NSA off the hook.

None of our enemies had any clue we were spying on them so clearly Snowden is a traitor. He’s given aid and comfort to the people our govt designates as enemies like the tea party, patriots, civil liberties types, and those who insist without proof our govt spies on everyone. What could be more damaging to our way of life than that?

How did he gather this scandalous info about our stolen liberties? That’s the real story, not that our govt conducts massive warrantless sweeps of our personal communications, activities, and movements. Why without the ability to monitor all of us at anytime how can they protect us? Where would we be without the chilling effects of survaillence on free speech? Exposing this is an outrage.

Oh my he might not have acted alone. We need to get to the bottom of that right now. Just think there might be others willing to expose the corruption and violation of our basic human rights. The horror!

Yes, I am certain that these violations of our constitution could make it easier to stop terrorist attacks. I am equally certain that the IRS might find tax cheats but both groups are now proven to be enemies of liberty and govt flacks.

If the author chooses to give up liberty for security maybe the monitoring should be on a volunteer basis. He can go first.

MaggotAtBroadAndWall | June 11, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Assuming someone with a higher clearance passed some of the documents to Snowden, then that strengthens the argument that the government does not have adequate controls on its espionage programs (and our data). It is only a matter of time before the data is used nefariously. Even if a traitor does not sell us out to a foreign government or Al Qaeda, then it can be used domestically to steal elections, blackmail, etc.

I’m trying to keep an open mind, but I’m coming down on Rand Paul’s side of the argument so far. And that means I will be on the same side as Michael Moore and Van Jones, which is beyond scary. The way I see it the government spends hundreds of billions each year on defense and intelligence gathering. I’m pretty sure they can figure out ways to keep us safe without destroying the 4th Amendment by creating a monster database with all of our personal information.

[…] Nagy’s post over at Legal Insurrection, entitled Five Clarifications We Can’t ask Of Edward Snowden is (1) a must-read and (2) damn fine analysis by a real […]

Why do I get the feeling that the newscycle for Benghazi, IRS and AP phone grabs is on a low ebb? You can hit this regime with these three but it’s not a clear shot with the NSA story.

Not having the same problems here. 1) He could be including his benefit package in his salary. 2) He said he can get into anyone’s email at any time. Imagine how this alone could affect elections here & abroad, surveillance of Congress, etc. Understated? He clearly is familiar with Binney as the first journalist he contacted was the videographer who’d interviewed him. 3) Hopefully there are others. 4) Snowden’s cutting off communications from work must’ve triggered alarm. Let’s talk about the possibilities of a government creating data profiles of every American, including voice & face recognition, gps tracking, shopping, political activity, etc. Imagine how computer programs could process that kind of data & where & when it could come in handy.

    dad29 in reply to urpower. | June 12, 2013 at 9:58 am

    “Booz Allen Hamilton says the annual salary it paid Snowden was $122,000, not the $200,000 Snowden has asserted.”

    Not only benefits; BoozAllen carefully did NOT mention “expense reimbursements.” The guy lives in HI and works for NSA….where, exactly?

The most sensational charges are comfirmed in the powerpoint, so it’s not like they are unsubstantiated unless the powerpoint itself has been forged. In it contains the details of data providers feeding into PRISM. Secondly the companies didn’t deny that were given the NSA data. They denied given the NSA direct access to the information on their servers. Most likely in this scenario, they either intercepting the data before it gets into the server or getting a duplicate feed (This tech has been around for about 20 years now) or more likely, Facebook, Google and the rest have access to the NSA servers and are directly feeding the NSA in data according to the “Court Order”

The smoking gun in this analysis is the yottabyte of storage. Unless they were just capturing everyone’s data willey nilley for later analysis, there is no need for the NSA to have that kind of storage and retrieval system. They only had authorization for about 1700 investigations! You wouldn’t need storage for a thousand internets for justa couple of thousand of targets. I should also point out you can’t really trust the official pronouncements, they were caught lying outright to congress over this collecting data on americans, why should we trust their character assassination.

Speaking as someone who actually does IT work, I believe what he has said implicitly. It makes perfect sense. All the dots connect. I have no question about his access credentials and what he could do, he was an administrator. Of course he could access anything, he was obviously granted “super credentials” as an essential requirement of his job. It would be way too complex to try to manage a fine granular access structure for administrators.

The final point is, despite the non-substantive character assassination, what is his motivation? it doesn’t really appear to be money or even fame. He seems resigned to the fact that he will be killed or disappeared. I don’t know, can someone actually come up with some reasonable explanation?

If talking points memo says the big stuff is dead on it must be bullshit.

BannedbytheGuardian | June 11, 2013 at 8:57 pm

No amount of spin will convince me that she can dance. I have studied the vids & can count only 7 moves each of which can be learnt at circus school or pole dancing academy. They take some dedication but these girls are self obsessives.

As a commenter at Dailymail posted …….sorry gal , men do not marry the pole dancer.

Plus have you seen the girls in Hong Kong – even the trannies ?

[…] From Legal Insurrection: 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. […]

[…] on Snowden: Five Clarifications We Can’t Ask of Edward Snowden (Very Interesting […]

[…] he can to protect the integrity of his source. However, his current statements do not dispel some issues brought up by Mandy Nagy over at Legal Insurrection. If anything, the inconsistencies brought up by […]

[…] he can to protect the integrity of his source. However, his current statements do not dispel some issues brought up by Mandy Nagy over at Legal Insurrection. If anything, the inconsistencies brought up by […]

[…] Five Clarifications We Can’t Ask of Edward Snowden […]