Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden made the ultimate decision to become a whistleblower when he came across a classified 2009 inspector general’s report on the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program during the administration of President George W. Bush. He read about the program and found it was illegal, according to an interview with New York Times reporter James Risen.
In the recently published interview, which took place in the past week, Snowden says during a “dirty word search,” which is what systems administrators do when checking the computer system “for things that should not be there in order to delete them and sanitize the system,” he discovered this report that was “too highly classified to be where it was.” He opened the document to be certain it did not belong and “curiosity prevailed.”
He read about the program that had been developed to operate outside the law and understood someone needed to act. “You can’t read something like that and not realize what it means for all of these systems we have,” he said. Also, “If the highest officials in government can break the law without fearing punishment or even any repercussions at all, secret powers become tremendously dangerous.”
The interview also contains Snowden’s first response to allegations that the documents he copied and took with him were compromised and wound up in the hands of the Chinese or that he has become an agent of the Russian security services and they have “blueprints” for the NSA.
All the documents, Snowden said, were given to journalists Glenn Greenwald or Laura Poitras, who he met in Hong Kong before WikiLeaks helped him fly out of the country. He did not keep copies “because it wouldn’t serve the public interest.” There were no copies of documents with him when he became stuck in Russia. There would have been no “unique value of personally carrying another copy of the materials,” he suggested.
Snowden explained that, as an NSA contractor, “he had targeted Chinese operations and had taught a course on Chinese cyberintelligence.” He claimed that he knew how to protect all documents from Chinese spies since he had become familiar with the country’s intelligence capabilities.
These public statements were made to specifically address allegations from anonymous or unnamed American intelligence officials that have alleged the documents may be in the possession of foreign intelligence agencies. Previously, he said, he had been “reluctant to disclose that information,” because he feared journalists working on stories based on the documents would be further scrutinized.
The interview additionally reveals that Snowden had an experience that shaped his view that going through proper channels would not produce the outcome that his fleeing the country and going public has managed to produce. It pertains to a story the Times reported based on anonymous officials that turned out be bogus and untrue.
Last week, anonymous “senior American officials” alleged he had tried to access classified files he was “not authorized to view” and a derogatory comment had been put into his file. A CIA spokesperson disputed this description of what happened.
Now, according to Snowden, while working as a telecommunications information systems officer for the CIA in Geneva, he got into it with a senior manager. He later discovered that the CIA’s personnel web applications had a software flaw that made them vulnerable to hacking.
Risen reported, “He warned his supervisor, he said, but his boss advised him to drop the matter and not rock the boat. After a technical team also brushed him off, he said, his boss finally agreed to allow him to test the system to prove that it was flawed.”
Snowden added code and text “in a non-malicious manner” to demonstrate that the vulnerability did, in fact exist. His supervisor okayed all of this but the senior manager he had previously challenged became “furious” and filed the derogatory comment.
He claimed that inside the NSA “there’s a lot of dissent—palpable with some, even.” The NSA uses “fear and a false image of patriotism,” like “obedience to authority,” to keep employees from challenging anything happening internally. (That could explain why the NSA felt the need to send an unprecedented “Dear Family” letter attempting to reassure everyone everything was going to be okay.)
Previously, Greenwald has fiercely defended Snowden as allegations that documents have ended up in the hands of foreign intelligence services have been made. Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, who received documents from Snowden as well, has explained how there is no way Snowden has allowed documents to be compromised.
Media spent most of the final weeks of June speculating about how one could be certain the files were not safe with Snowden and foreign intelligence would surely get their hands on NSA files. For example, CNN had a special hour of “The Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer where “former spies” were invited to explain how the Russians might “try to extract the information they need.” Philip Mudd, a former CIA analyst, said “I don’t know how you assume anything else,” when asked if the Chinese had accessed laptops or thumb drives.
Finally, it was revealed last week that Snowden had taken four laptops with him to Hong Kong and then Moscow as a “diversion.” This hardware contained no secrets, according to former CIA officer Ray McGovern, who met Snowden along with other national security whistleblowers.
All the files were put on smaller devices, like hard drive or thumb drives.
Undoubtedly, US government officials will continue to try and undermine Snowden’s whistleblowing because of the debate he has inspired that is placing a massive surveillance apparatus under great scrutiny. Members of the media and political operatives, who are abundantly loyal to President Obama, will sharpen their theories or philosophy about what Snowden should have done if he wanted to do the right thing. But, what this criticism will show, as it has continued to demonstrate, is that these people have an intrinsic belief in the goodness of the national security state and they do not want to respond favorably to Snowden by confronting how it is corrupt to the core.