With all of the shutdown follies in Washington gaining most of our attention today, this surprise from the New York Times might be easy to miss — but it shouldn’t go unnoticed. The CIA sent Edward Snowden home in 2009 from an assignment in Geneva after they suspected him of attempting to hack a computer outside of his classification. That raises even more questions about his ability to gain clearances as a contractor:
Just as Edward J. Snowden was preparing to leave Geneva and a job as a C.I.A. technician in 2009, his supervisor wrote a derogatory report in his personnel file, noting a distinct change in the young man’s behavior and work habits, as well as a troubling suspicion.
The C.I.A. suspected that Mr. Snowden was trying to break into classified computer files to which he was not authorized to have access, and decided to send him home, according to two senior American officials.
But the red flags went unheeded. Mr. Snowden left the C.I.A. to become a contractor for the National Security Agency, and four years later he leaked thousands of classified documents. The supervisor’s cautionary note and the C.I.A.’s suspicions apparently were not forwarded to the N.S.A. or its contractors, and surfaced only after federal investigators began scrutinizing Mr. Snowden’s record once the documents began spilling out, intelligence and law enforcement officials said.
“It slipped through the cracks,” one veteran law enforcement official said of the report.
It’s one thing to miss a derogatory piece of information out in the rest of the world during a background check. How does a derogatory report inside the intelligence community get lost when granting a high-level clearance? Eric Schmitt reports that the earlier incident nearly mirrors what Snowden later successfully managed to do, penetrate the data systems to access and steal highly-classified material. Surely that should have been enough to deny anyone a clearance for further work.
Instead, Snowden shifted jobs to contract for the NSA, where the data would be even more sensitive. Part of his value to those contracting firms was his clearance, which should have been suspended with the suspicions raised by his CIA superiors. People are not entitled to security clearances, after all — they are granted by the government when they determine that the applicant can be trusted, and can be suspended and/or revoked for any instance where that trustworthiness comes into question.
Amazingly, this bug turns out to be not a one-off error, but a rather wide-open hole:
In hindsight, officials said, the report by the C.I.A. supervisor and the agency’s suspicions might have been the first serious warnings of the disclosures to come, and the biggest missed opportunity to review Mr. Snowden’s top-secret clearance or at least put his future work at the N.S.A. under much greater scrutiny.
“The weakness of the system was if derogatory information came in, he could still keep his security clearance and move to another job, and the information wasn’t passed on,” said a Republican lawmaker who has been briefed on Mr. Snowden’s activities.
How many other Snowdens have figured this out? And how many of them are just disgruntled, or are actively working for foreign powers? When Congress gets back to business, this should be a high priority in their agenda.