Snowden: Most Wanted Man In World Wrapped In US Flag

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WIRED Magazine provides great coverage of Edward Snowden in their August issue that provides new details on Snowden’s background and experience, why he decided to blow the whistle as well as exposing important new aspects of the documents he has leaked. Snowden provides a history of his work at NSA that shows how he climbed the ladder to become a top technology person for the agency and in private industry thereby giving him access to all NSA documents. He also described how he was prepared to blow the whistle during the Bush administration but held out in the hope that President Obama would change course. He quickly became disenchanted with President Obama and decided there was no choice but to expose the NSA’s activities.Snowden WIRED Cover

WIRED has a series of stories but the centerpiece is by James Bamford.  Bamford has been reporting on the NSA since the initials stood for “No Such Agency.” The New Yorker has described Bamford as the NSA’s Chief Chronicler. He has written numerous articles and books on the agency and US intelligence activities after working for the NSA and becoming a whistleblower himself.  His first book, The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America’s Most Secret Agency, was published in 1982 and exposed details about agency few new existed. Five books later, his most recent book published in 2008, The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America.

No doubt Bamford will be writing more now that the NSA’s internal workings have been exposed by whistleblowers. One thing Bamford shows in the article is that there is no doubt there is someone else (maybe more than one person) leaking documents from inside the NSA. He also makes it clear that no one (even Snowden) knows the extent of unreported information in the millions of pages Snowden released, but that the NSA is very scared that a ‘smoking gun’ will cause even greater trouble for the agency.

In Edward Snowden: The Untold Story, Bamford describes how it took nine months to arrange an interview with Edward Snowden ending with three solid days of interviews over three weeks.  It is hard to imagine anyone better positioned to interview Snowden than Bamford. The interviews lived up to their potential and I strongly recommend reading the full article as the excerpts below are mere highlights of a very interesting story. In addition, WIRED has additional articles on the topic that also are worth reviewing.

Note, I serve on the advisory board of the Courage Foundation which is an international organization that supports those who risk life or liberty to to blow the whistle to ensure the public knows what government and major corporate interests are doing. Courage raised funds for the legal and public defense of specific individuals who fit these criteria and are subject to serious prosecution or persecution. Courage also campaigns for the protection of truthtellers and the public’s right to know. Donate here to support the work of Courage

Snowden with General Michael Hayden at a gala in 2011. Hayden, former director of the NSA and CIA, defended US surveillance policies.

Snowden with General Michael Hayden at a gala in 2011. Hayden, former director of the NSA and CIA, defended US surveillance policies.

Excerpts:

His 31st birthday is a few days away. Snowden still holds out hope that he will someday be allowed to return to the US. “I told the government I’d volunteer for prison, as long as it served the right purpose,” he says. “I care more about the country than what happens to me. But we can’t allow the law to become a political weapon or agree to scare people away from standing up for their rights, no matter how good the deal. I’m not going to be part of that.”

* * *

Snowden no longer has access to them; he says he didn’t bring them with him to Russia. Copies are now in the hands of three groups: First Look Media, set up by journalist Glenn Greenwald and American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, the two original recipients of the documents;The Guardian newspaper, which also received copies before the British government pressured it into transferring physical custody (but not ownership) to The New York Times; and Barton Gellman, a writer forThe Washington Post.

That has left US officials in something like a state of impotent expectation, waiting for the next round of revelations, the next diplomatic upheaval, a fresh dose of humiliation. Snowden tells me it doesn’t have to be like this. He says that he actually intended the government to have a good idea about what exactly he stole. Before he made off with the documents, he tried to leave a trail of digital bread crumbs so investigators could determine which documents he copied and took and which he just “touched.” That way, he hoped, the agency would see that his motive was whistle-blowing and not spying for a foreign government. It would also give the government time to prepare for leaks in the future, allowing it to change code words, revise operational plans, and take other steps to mitigate damage. But he believes the NSA’s audit missed those clues and simply reported the total number of documents he touched—1.7 million. (Snowden says he actually took far fewer.) “I figured they would have a hard time,” he says. “I didn’t figure they would be completely incapable.”

* * *

Snowden speculates that the government fears that the documents contain material that’s deeply damaging—secrets the custodians have yet to find. “I think they think there’s a smoking gun in there that would be the death of them all politically,” Snowden says. “The fact that the government’s investigation failed—that they don’t know what was taken and that they keep throwing out these ridiculous huge numbers—implies to me that somewhere in their damage assessment they must have seen something that was like, ‘Holy shit.’ And they think it’s still out there.”

Yet it is very likely that no one knows precisely what is in the mammoth haul of documents—not the NSA, not the custodians, not even Snowden himself.

* * *

Snowden keeps close tabs on his evolving public profile, but he has been resistant to talking about himself. . . . he’s concerned that he may inadvertently detract from the cause he has risked his life to promote. “I’m an engineer, not a politician,” he says. “I don’t want the stage. I’m terrified of giving these talking heads some distraction, some excuse to jeopardize, smear, and delegitimize a very important movement.”

* * *

Snowden . . . is not . . . a wild-eyed firebrand but . . . a solemn, sincere idealist who—step by step over a period of years—grew disillusioned with his country and government.

* * *

He began to consider becoming a whistle-blower [during the Bush era], but with Obama about to be elected, he held off. “I think even Obama’s critics were impressed and optimistic about the values that he represented,” he says. “He said that we’re not going to sacrifice our rights. We’re not going to change who we are just to catch some small percentage more terrorists.” But Snowden grew disappointed as, in his view, Obama didn’t follow through on his lofty rhetoric. “Not only did they not fulfill those promises, but they entirely repudiated them,” he says. “They went in the other direction. What does that mean for a society, for a democracy, when the people that you elect on the basis of promises can basically suborn the will of the electorate?”

* * *

[Snowden’s disillusionment  grew and] he would also begin to appreciate the enormous scope of the NSA’s surveillance capabilities, an ability to map the movement of everyone in a city by monitoring their MAC address, a unique identifier emitted by every cell phone, computer, and other electronic device.

* * *

Snowden’s concerns over the NSA’s capabilities and lack of oversight grew with each passing day. Among the discoveries that most shocked him was learning that the agency was regularly passing raw private communications—content as well as metadata—to Israeli intelligence. Usually information like this would be “minimized,” a process where names and personally identifiable data are removed. But in this case, the NSA did virtually nothing to protect even the communications of people in the US. This included the emails and phone calls of millions of Arab and Palestinian Americans whose relatives in Israel-occupied Palestine could become targets based on the communications. “I think that’s amazing,” Snowden says. “It’s one of the biggest abuses we’ve seen.”

* * *

He realized, just like [Senator Frank] Church had before him, that the only way to cure the abuses of the government was to expose them. But Snowden didn’t have a Senate committee at his disposal or the power of congressional subpoena. He’d have to carry out his mission covertly, just as he’d been trained.

* * *

. . . aware of the enormous potential consequences, he secretly went to work. “If the government will not represent our interests,” he says, his face serious, his words slow, “then the public will champion its own interests. And whistle-blowing provides a traditional means to do so.”

* * *

. . . he was also able to confirm, he says, that vast amounts of US communications “were being intercepted and stored without a warrant, without any requirement for criminal suspicion, probable cause, or individual designation.” He gathered that evidence and secreted it safely away.

* * *

He thought the work [involving cyber attacks against China] was overstepping the intelligence agency’s mandate. “It’s no secret that we hack China very aggressively,” he says. “But we’ve crossed lines. We’re hacking universities and hospitals and wholly civilian infrastructure rather than actual government targets and military targets. And that’s a real concern.”

* * *

[He discovered] the Mission Data Repository [in Utah]. (According to Snowden, the original name was Massive Data Repository, but it was changed after some staffers thought it sounded too creepy—and accurate.) Billions of phone calls, faxes, emails, computer-to-computer data transfers, and text messages from around the world flow through the MDR every hour. . . . Snowden was even more disturbed to discover a new, Strangelovian cyberwarfare program in the works, codenamed MonsterMind. . . . in order for the system to work, the NSA first would have to secretly get access to virtually all private communications coming in from overseas to people in the US. “The argument is that the only way we can identify these malicious traffic flows and respond to them is if we’re analyzing all traffic flows,” he says. “And if we’re analyzing all traffic flows, that means we have to be intercepting all traffic flows. That means violating the Fourth Amendment, seizing private communications without a warrant, without probable cause or even a suspicion of wrongdoing. For everyone, all the time.”

* * *

On March 13, 2013, sitting at his desk in the “tunnel” surrounded by computer screens, Snowden read a news story that convinced him that the time had come to act. It was an account of director of national intelligence James Clapper telling a Senate committee that the NSA does “not wittingly” collect information on millions of Americans.

* * *

More than anything, Snowden fears a blunder that will destroy all the progress toward reforms for which he has sacrificed so much. “I’m not self-destructive. I don’t want to self-immolate and erase myself from the pages of history. But if we don’t take chances, we can’t win,” he says. And so he takes great pains to stay one step ahead of his presumed pursuers—he switches computers and email accounts constantly. Nevertheless, he knows he’s liable to be compromised eventually: “I’m going to slip up and they’re going to hack me. It’s going to happen.”

* * *

Nor is he optimistic that the next election will bring any meaningful reform. In the end, Snowden thinks we should put our faith in technology—not politicians. “We have the means and we have the technology to end mass surveillance without any legislative action at all, without any policy changes.” The answer, he says, is robust encryption. “By basically adopting changes like making encryption a universal standard—where all communications are encrypted by default—we can end mass surveillance not just in the United States but around the world.”