The most confounding thing in writing about the NSA/PRISM/Snowden clusterfark is that, if you don’t work in national security, there’s no yardstick to measure which claims are plausible and which are insane. That in itself is a brutal indictment of the surveillance state, of course: The government’s powers are so vast and so secret that even a citizen who follows the news really can’t debate them intelligently. Is it insane to think that a 29-year-old NSA/Booz IT guy could be reading Barack Obama’s private e-mails if he wanted to? I think it is, but not for any reason better than that I think it should be. My sense of how things “probably” work inside NSA’s black box is just me projecting my own sense of reasonable limits onto them. There’s very little in this informed civic debate that’s actually informed, which is why it’s effectively impossible to impose democratic limits on it.
So, yeah. Snowden suggests he could have accessed the president’s personal e-mails. Is that crazy? I hope so. I don’t know.
He says he was granted broad “wiretapping” authorities. In a video interview with The Guardian, Snowden claims to have had incredibly broad authority to wiretap Americans, saying “I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal e-mail.”
He also told WaPo reporter Bart Gellman that national intelligence wouldn’t stop at killing a reporter in the name of protecting especially sensitive information. Is that crazy? I hope so. I think so, simply because reporters who break big national-security stories aren’t known to disappear or meet with accidents. But I don’t know.
“I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end,” [Snowden] wrote in early May, before we had our first direct contact. He warned that even journalists who pursued his story were at risk until they published.
The U.S. intelligence community, he wrote, “will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure and make them the sole owner of this information.”
On the one hand, that sounds like a Ron Paul fan muttering under his breath. On the other hand, this guy’s scoop about PRISM has in fact been borne out as other government sources have confirmed the program’s existence. It’s hard to sneer at someone for being paranoid after he’s just exposed massive data-mining of Americans’ electronic communications. The one question to which I keep returning is how Snowden could have gotten hold of all this information. Could he really have done it all himself given his place in the natsec food chain? CIA officials are confused too:
For instance, Snowden said he did not have a high school diploma. One former CIA official said that it was extremely unusual for the agency to have hired someone with such thin academic credentials, particularly for a technical job, and that the terms Snowden used to describe his agency positions did not match internal job descriptions.
Snowden’s claim to have been placed under diplomatic cover for a position in Switzerland after an apparently brief stint at the CIA as a systems administrator also raised suspicion. “I just have never heard of anyone being hired with so little academic credentials,” the former CIA official said. The agency does employ technical specialists in overseas stations, the former official said, “but their breadth of experience is huge, and they tend not to start out as systems administrators.”
A former senior U.S. intelligence official cited other puzzling aspects of Snowden’s account, questioning why a contractor for Booz Allen at an NSA facility in Hawaii would have access to something as sensitive as a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
“I don’t know why he would have had access to those . . . orders out in Hawaii,” the former official said.
Could this guy really have done it all himself or did he have an accomplice further up the chain who wanted this to come out but wasn’t prepared to suffer for the disclosure? Snowden is a perfect leaker: He’s young and idealistic, which makes him more sympathetic to the public, and he’s unmarried and without children, so he has less to lose than someone older with more family obligations might. He may have agreed to take the fall in the name of exposing a government program to which he objected, and his accomplice may have agreed to provide him with the documents in return. (If you think it’s unlikely that a veteran analyst might suffer a crisis of conscience, meet William Binney.) I take it right now the FBI’s sifting through Snowden’s communications over the past year or so with NSA officials to see if he had any unusual recurring communications with anyone higher up. Or maybe I’m talking straight out of my ass and Snowden really did pull this off himself. That was my point up top — as a layman, there’s simply no way to know what’s likely or unlikely. Most conspiracy theorists latch on to outlandish explanations because, deep down, the conspiracy makes them feel better than the reality. I’m doing that too here. I’d rather believe Snowden was working with someone than that one rogue midlevel IT operative could tap the president’s secret GMail account or break open the inner sanctum of U.S. national security. We’ll see.
Exit question one: A guy with access to one of the NSA’s most sensitive tools tells them he needs a few weeks off to get treatment for his epilepsy, then hops a plane to Hong Kong(!) — and no one at the agency suspects anything until it’s too late? A point oft-repeated on Twitter yesterday after he outed himself is that the fact that he was able to pull this off at all kinda sorta explodes the NSA’s rationale for massive data-mining in the first place. Exit question two: Can we safely assume that, if we’re bugging more or less the entire Internet, we’re not in fact at China’s mercy when it comes to cyberespionage? Every week brings a new story about Beijing rifling through American businesses’ records; last week came news that the Obama and McCain campaigns were hacked by China in 2008. Why are they able to do that if the feds are so far ahead technologically that they can track a person’s movements virtually moment to moment from their data footprint? I realize the technology in data mining and hacker defense is different, but it’s weird to think the feds have all but mastered the former and yet trail in the latter to an almost catastrophic degree.