A number of media organizations have published stories based on a leaked National Security Agency memo that suggests NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden “swiped” the password of a co-worker, a civilian NSA employee, who has been forced to resign for sharing his password. The forced resignation by the civilian NSA employee is being reported as part of disciplining people for allowing breaches of security to happen, not as a part of the NSA’s effort to find people to take the fall for something the agency did not prevent from happening.
The memo, obtained and published by NBC News—and dated February 10, 2014, three days ago—provides an update to members of Congress of the House Judiciary Committee on “steps that the National Security Agency (NSA) has taken to assign accountability related to the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by former contractor Edward Snowden.”
“Three NSA affiliates have been implicated in this matter: an NSA civilian employee, an active duty military member and a contractor. The civilian employee recently resigned from employment at NSA,” the memo reports.
It adds, “On June 18, 2013, the NSA civilian admitted to FBI Special Agents that he allowed Mr. Snowden to use his (the NSA civilian’s) Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) certificate to access classified information on NSANet; access that he knew had been denied to Mr. Snowden. Further, at Mr. Snowden’s request, the civilian entered his PKI password at Mr. Snowden’s computer terminal. Unbeknownst to the civilian, Mr. Snowden was able to capture the password, allowing him even greater access to classified information. The civilian was not aware the Mr. Snowden intended to unlawfully disclose classified information. However, by sharing his PKI certificate, he failed to comply with security obligations.”
Notice what is not included in that description: when this password “swiping” occurred, whether Snowden actually needed to have the PKI to complete a task assigned to him, whether the employee typed the password in himself or actually wrote it down and handed it to him and whether this conduct would have actually been suspicious in the NSA whenever it took place.
NBC News clarifies the content of the memo with the phrase, “while the memo’s account is sketchy.” Yet, despite its “sketchiness,” NBC News published the report and presented it in a way that reinforces the narrative that Snowden did not blow the whistle and had accomplices to commit his dastardly deed.
The memo states the civilian employee was forced to resign on January 10, 2014. An active military member and contractor lost their access to NSA information and spaces in August 2013. However, there is virtually no evidence in this memo that these people being held responsible for the NSA actually had any role in helping Snowden.
Kirk Wiebe, a former NSA employee and whistleblower, suggested, “Such an act would not have been a reason for “firing” an NSA IT [information technology] guy 10 years ago, or even before the Snowden revelations in my opinion.”
“Part of the reason for tolerating such behavior before the Snowden leaks is that NSA does not have enterprise IT support. In other words, standards that make supporting NSA IT infrastructure – including data management – easy.”
The NSA does not really know the extent of what Snowden took and how he really did it. The forced resignation of this civilian employee and the decision to strip three people of their security clearances is reflective of an agency floundering in the aftermath of one of the most massive security breaches in its history.
The contact Snowden had with these employees are data points in the time Snowden worked for the agency. The confirmation bias of NSA leaders has driven them to take those data points and create causal relationships between events that took place. They decided that the civilian employee, wittingly or unwittingly, is a part of a conspiracy by Snowden because being victim of a conspiracy makes them look better than being a victim of an independent whistleblower.
Thomas Drake, a former NSA employee and whistleblower prosecuted by the administration of President Barack Obama for his act of trying to inform the public, recalled, “I had people pressured by NSA into making up stuff (including statements) about me and my character and obtaining information as well as purloining and stealing documents from NSA for the purposes of disclosing them to people”—reporters—”not authorized to receive them.” But, like Snowden, “I acted alone without any ‘help.'”
“NSA is simply choosing to believe that Snowden did not act alone. They are demonstrating something called confirmation bias.” They are looking for and manufacturing evidence to “prove” their allegations.” Or, by the simple act of forcing people out of the agency, they are creating the perception that those people played a role in Snowden’s act.
Even though unidentified FBI agents from the Washington field office, leading the investigation into Snowden, told the New York Times in December they believe Snowden “methodically downloaded the files over several months while working as a government contractor at the Hawaii facility” and “worked alone,” the story that Snowden did not do this by himself has continued to surface in the media without being appropriately questioned. (The Times did note again in January it was still the FBI’s conclusion Snowden acted alone.)
Though NBC News fails to make the connection, this civilian employee may be what House Intelligence Committee chairman was referring to when he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” some of what he had done was “beyond his technical capabilities.” And, “He had some help and he stole things that had nothing to do with privacy.”
“Some help” could be limited to the civilian NSA employee sharing the password that is mentioned in the memo. The phrase “beyond his technical capabilities” may be a way of saying he was not cleared for access in this instance and had to ask for a password to gain access to NSANet. Of course, the innuendo used by Rogers is much more effective in making Americans fear what Snowden did was malicious, especially since Rogers wants people to believe he did this with assistance from Russian foreign intelligence.
Furthermore, regardless of Rogers’ background as an FBI employee, Rogers has disregarded the conclusions of the FBI’s own investigators, even going so far as to obtain permission from the Obama administration to release classified information that could be used to attack Snowden’s character.
Rep. Mike McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has done a service for the NSA too. He said in January on ABC’s “This Week” that he did not believe “Snowden woke up one day and had the wherewithal to do this all by himself. I think he was helped by others.”
MCCAUL: But I personally believe that he was cultivated by a foreign power to do what he did. And he — I would submit, again, that he’s not a hero by any stretch. He’s a traitor. He — he lives not very far down the street from where I am right now, enjoying probably less freedoms today here in Russia than he had in the United States of America.
STEPHANOPOULOS: That’s a pretty serious charge, sir.
Which foreign power do you believe cultivated Edward Snowden?
MCCAUL: Again, I can’t give a definitive statement on that. I — but I’ve been given all the evidence, I know Mike Rogers has access to, you know, that I’ve seen that I don’t think he was acting alone.
A driving force for this idea that Snowden did not act alone is Rogers. He’s saying what intelligence agency leaders have not the courage to claim publicly because they know these insinuations are not credible. Plus, it’s better to have a congressman out there doing the dirty work for them. It makes it seem like it is coming from “evidence” briefed to Congress and harder to prove it is likely propaganda from within the NSA.
In reporting on this memo where the NSA is holding people “accountable,” why not highlight the fact that these are all people who are not part of the leadership at all? These are not individuals who were responsible for management and bear responsibility for the massive leak of information.
As another whistleblower and former whistleblower William Binney explained to Firedoglake in December, NSA never developed and implemented technology in order to have the capabilities to track activities by employees on the agency’s systems. The reason was because of two groups of people: analysts and management.
The analysts “realized that what that would be doing is monitoring everything they did and assessing what they were doing. They objected. They didn’t want to be monitored” and have their privacy violated.
Management resisted because it meant one would be “able to assess returns on all the programs around the world.” It would be possible to “lay out all the programs in the world and map [them] against the spending and the return on investment.”
It meant the agency would be “exposed to Congress for auditing,” Binney added.” Management, those leading the NSA, did not want that.
This allegation of stealing login and password information surfaced in a report from Reuters in November. Snowden reacted, “With all due respect to Mark Hosenball, the Reuters report that put this out there was simply wrong. I never stole any passwords, nor did I trick an army of co-workers.”
Snowden told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer in an interview, when responding to allegations that he was some kind of Russian spy or nefarious being, “It’s not the smears that mystify me.”
…It’s that outlets report statements that the speakers themselves admit are sheer speculation.” Snowden went on to poke fun at the range of allegations that have been made against him in the media without intelligence officials providing some kind of factual basis: “?‘We don’t know if he had help from aliens.’ ‘You know, I have serious questions about whether he really exists.’?”
Snowden went on, “It’s just amazing that these massive media institutions don’t have any sort of editorial position on this. I mean, these are pretty serious allegations, you know?” He continued, “The media has a major role to play in American society, and they’re really abdicating their responsibility to hold power to account…
If one is concerned about the NSA’s ability to secure classified information, media should seek to hold someone responsible in power accountable. They might report on why there has been no push in the agency to force NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander to resign.
Instead, US media—with a few exceptions—seem content with amplifying or reprinting baseless allegations and tantalizing innuendo that can mostly be traced back to one individual, Rep. Mike Rogers, who clearly has some kind of vendetta against Snowden because he has repeatedly forced him to address the issue of oversight of the NSA—a concept in government which appears to be personally outrageous to him.
Photo by Fabien Jakimowicz, used under Creative Commons license