James Bamford is a writer specializing in security issues. After great effort he managed to arrange an interview with Edward Snowden in Moscow for Wired magazine. The writer spent three full days spread out over three weeks interviewing Snowden for a cover story as to what made him do what he did, a question that continues to fascinate observers despite Snowden having seemingly answered it many times. The article is accompanied by several photographs that were take just before Bamford arrived in Moscow and the story of that photo shoot is itself pretty interesting.
Bamford’s article is a very long piece that covers much familiar grounnd to those like me who have been following this story closely but what struck me were the arguments presented by Bamford that there seem to be other whistleblowers within the NSA who are releasing documents under the cover that Snowden has provided.
And there’s another prospect that further complicates matters: Some of the revelations attributed to Snowden may not in fact have come from him but from another leaker spilling secrets under Snowden’s name. Snowden himself adamantly refuses to address this possibility on the record. But independent of my visit to Snowden, I was given unrestricted access to his cache of documents in various locations. And going through this archive using a sophisticated digital search tool, I could not find some of the documents that have made their way into public view, leading me to conclude that there must be a second leaker somewhere. I’m not alone in reaching that conclusion. Both Greenwald and security expert Bruce Schneier—who have had extensive access to the cache—have publicly stated that they believe another whistle-blower is releasing secret documents to the media.
In fact, on the first day of my Moscow interview with Snowden, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel comes out with a long story about the NSA’s operations in Germany and its cooperation with the German intelligence agency, BND. Among the documents the magazine releases is a top-secret “Memorandum of Agreement” between the NSA and the BND from 2002. “It is not from Snowden’s material,” the magazine notes.
Some have even raised doubts about whether the infamous revelation that the NSA was tapping German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, long attributed to Snowden, came from his trough. At the time of that revelation, Der Spiegel simply attributed the information to Snowden and other unnamed sources. If other leakers exist within the NSA, it would be more than another nightmare for the agency—it would underscore its inability to control its own information and might indicate that Snowden’s rogue protest of government overreach has inspired others within the intelligence community. “They still haven’t fixed their problems,” Snowden says. “They still have negligent auditing, they still have things going for a walk, and they have no idea where they’re coming from and they have no idea where they’re going. And if that’s the case, how can we as the public trust the NSA with all of our information, with all of our private records, the permanent record of our lives?”
The Der Spiegel articles were written by, among others, [Laura] Poitras, the filmmaker who was one of the first journalists Snowden contacted. Her high visibility and expertise in encryption may have attracted other NSA whistle-blowers, and Snowden’s cache of documents could have provided the ideal cover. Following my meetings with Snowden, I email Poitras and ask her point-blank whether there are other NSA sources out there. She answers through her attorney: “We are sorry but Laura is not going to answer your question.”
Bamford describes the precautions Snowden takes to avoid being captured by agents of the US government.
He has been in Russia for more than a year now. He shops at a local grocery store where no one recognizes him, and he has picked up some of the language. He has learned to live modestly in an expensive city that is cleaner than New York and more sophisticated than Washington.
Snowden is careful about what’s known in the intelligence world as operational security. As we sit down, he removes the battery from his cell phone. I left my iPhone back at my hotel. Snowden’s handlers repeatedly warned me that, even switched off, a cell phone can easily be turned into an NSA microphone. Knowledge of the agency’s tricks is one of the ways that Snowden has managed to stay free. Another is by avoiding areas frequented by Americans and other Westerners. Nevertheless, when he’s out in public at, say, a computer store, Russians occasionally recognize him. “Shh,” Snowden tells them, smiling, putting a finger to his lips.
Of course, Snowden is still very cautious about arranging face-to-face meetings, and I am reminded why when, preparing for our interview, I read a recent Washington Post report. The story, by Greg Miller, recounts daily meetings with senior officials from the FBI, CIA, and State Department, all desperately trying to come up with ways to capture Snowden. One official told Miller: “We were hoping he was going to be stupid enough to get on some kind of airplane, and then have an ally say: ‘You’re in our airspace. Land.’ ” He wasn’t. And since he disappeared into Russia, the US seems to have lost all trace of him.
The article also clears up the issue of where the Snowden archive is located and who has them.
Meanwhile, Snowden will continue to haunt the US, the unpredictable impact of his actions resonating at home and around the world. The documents themselves, however, are out of his control. 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 for The Washington Post. It’s highly unlikely that the current custodians will ever return the documents to the NSA.
The Bamford article also clears up a small puzzle of why the US government keeps saying that Snowden took 1.7 million documents while he himself says that it was in the tens of thousands and Greenwald has been more specific and fixed it at 58,000.
[Snowden] 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.”
The article traces Snowden’s early life history and then focuses on the things that drove Snowden to do what he did.
But in March 2012, Snowden moved again for Dell, this time to a massive bunker in Hawaii where he became the lead technologist for the information-sharing office, focusing on technical issues. Inside the “tunnel,” a dank, chilly, 250,000-square-foot pit that was once a torpedo storage facility, 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.” (The operation was reported last year by The Guardian, which cited the Snowden documents as its source.)
Another troubling discovery was a document from NSA director Keith Alexander that showed the NSA was spying on the pornography-viewing habits of political radicals. The memo suggested that the agency could use these “personal vulnerabilities” to destroy the reputations of government critics who were not in fact accused of plotting terrorism. The document then went on to list six people as future potential targets. (Greenwald published a redacted version of the document last year on the Huffington Post.)
The NSA had apparently never predicted that someone like Snowden might go rogue. In any case, Snowden says he had no problem accessing, downloading, and extracting all the confidential information he liked. Except for the very highest level of classified documents, details about virtually all of the NSA’s surveillance programs were accessible to anyone, employee or contractor, private or general, who had top-secret NSA clearance and access to an NSA computer.
But Snowden’s access while in Hawaii went well beyond even this. “I was the top technologist for the information-sharing office in Hawaii,” he says. “I had access to everything.”
Well, almost everything. There was one key area that remained out of his reach: the NSA’s aggressive cyberwarfare activity around the world. To get access to that last cache of secrets, Snowden landed a job as an infrastructure analyst with another giant NSA contractor, Booz Allen. The role gave him rare dual-hat authority covering both domestic and foreign intercept capabilities—allowing him to trace domestic cyberattacks back to their country of origin. In his new job, Snowden became immersed in the highly secret world of planting malware into systems around the world and stealing gigabytes of foreign secrets. At the same time, 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.
The last straw for Snowden was a secret program he discovered while getting up to speed on the capabilities of the NSA’s enormous and highly secret data storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah. Potentially capable of holding upwards of a yottabyte of data, some 500 quintillion pages of text, the 1 million-square-foot building is known within the NSA as the Mission Data Repository. (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. Some flow right through, some are kept briefly, and some are held forever.
Given the NSA’s new data storage mausoleum in Bluffdale, its potential to start an accidental war, and the charge to conduct surveillance on all incoming communications, Snowden believed he had no choice but to take his thumb drives and tell the world what he knew. The only question was when.
Snowden thinks, and I agree with him, that we cannot depend on the political system to protect our privacy. Although there are some privacy advocates in it, Congress as a whole is too much in cahoots with the national security establishment to put any serious constraints on the spying apparatus. We need to look to the technology people who can integrate high-level encryption into all communication software in a way that makes it easy for ordinary people to use. We already see the beginnings of that with major companies.
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.”
Until then, Snowden says, the revelations will keep coming. “We haven’t seen the end,” he says. Indeed, a couple of weeks after our meeting, The Washington Post reported that the NSA’s surveillance program had captured much more data on innocent Americans than on its intended foreign targets. There are still hundreds of thousands of pages of secret documents out there—to say nothing of the other whistle-blowers he may have already inspired. But Snowden says that information contained in any future leaks is almost beside the point. “The question for us is not what new story will come out next. The question is, what are we going to do about it?”
What I found most amusing was this photograph of Snowden with the creepy Michael Hayden (former head of the NSA and CIA and now a harsh critic of Snowden) at some gala in 2011. I cannot see Hayden framing it and hanging it on his office wall.