What the NSA should fear most

The US government has gone to great lengths to portray Edward Snowden as some kind of loner, a loser, a narcissistic fame-seeker, a criminal, a drop out with a grievance who was trying to discredit a government that was tirelessly seeking only that which was good and noble. They have been aided in this effort by some elements in the media, such as last week’s CBS’s 60 Minutes story on the NSA that has been widely panned as giving a platform for NSA propaganda. Given its recent debacle on the Benghazi story, one wonders how long that show can portray itself as a credible news outlet.

But the government’s narrative is not catching on. Andy Greenberg writes in Forbes magazine about speaking with one of his co-workers that Snowden seemed to have been held him in high esteem, and that he was given increasingly greater privileges because he was so good at his job.

But an NSA staffer who contacted me last month and asked not to be identified–and whose claims we checked with Snowden himself via his ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner—offered me a very different, firsthand portrait of how Snowden was seen by his colleagues in the agency’s Hawaii office: A principled and ultra-competent, if somewhat eccentric employee, and one who earned the access used to pull off his leak by impressing superiors with sheer talent.

The anonymous NSA staffer’s priority in contacting me, in fact, was to refute stories that have surfaced as the NSA and the media attempt to explain how a contractor was able to obtain and leak the tens of thousands of highly classified documents that have become the biggest public disclosure of NSA secrets in history. According to the source, Snowden didn’t dupe coworkers into handing over their passwords, as one report has claimed. Nor did Snowden fabricate SSH keys to gain unauthorized access, he or she says.

Instead, there’s little mystery as to how Snowden gained his access: It was given to him.

“That kid was a genius among geniuses,” says the NSA staffer. “NSA is full of smart people, but anybody who sat in a meeting with Ed will tell you he was in a class of his own…I’ve never seen anything like it.”

This does not surprise me. The meticulous care with which Snowden made his detailed preparations about what to collect, how to collect it, and how and to whom to disseminate it, all show a methodical and principled mind. Greenberg’s source goes on to list all the ways in which Snowden acquired greater access by superior performance at his job.

But what must really scare the hell out of the NSA is the final quote in the article.

Snowden’s former colleague says that he or she has slowly come to understand Snowden’s decision to leak the NSA’s files. “I was shocked and betrayed when I first learned the news, but as more time passes I’m inclined to believe he really is trying to do the right thing and it’s not out of character for him. I don’t agree with his methods, but I understand why he did it,” he or she says. “I won’t call him a hero, but he’s sure as hell no traitor.”

As more and more people realize the merits of what Snowden has done despite the government propaganda against him, the NSA and other agencies of the government must be alarmed at the potential for future leaks.


  1. says

    , the NSA and other agencies of the government must be alarmed at the potential for future leaks.

    That, and they know that their arms are stuck in the cookie jar and there’s no way they’re going to be able to pass it off as “I was getting the cookie for YOU”

  2. eigenperson says

    I think their strategy is to say “Don’t worry about it… cookies aren’t good for you anyway, so why do you care if we take them all?”

  3. daved says

    I, too, have been extremely impressed with the way in which Snowden’s leaks have been handled. Rather than one big information dump, it’s the steady bang-bang-bang of more and more revelations of illegal and appalling NSA actions.

    A single big reveal wouldn’t have worked as well. People would lose interest, and then there’d be nothing but counter-propaganda from the government and the courtier press. Instead, every time things seem to be quieting down, there is yet another report. And he didn’t just start with the biggest stuff and work his way down. I’m not sure how he (or Greenwald) picked the order of what to reveal and when, but saving big items for later in the sequence was smart.

    Boy, they must still be sweating at NSA, wondering what else he’s got and when it’ll hit the newswires. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of professional liars.

    Obama, I gather, is now trying to defuse the situation by saying that next month, he’ll reveal a bunch a changes to these programs that will make them more legal or responsible or something. I’m confident that the idea that all this spying is unconstitutional and a national disgrace will not be part of the package, whatever it is.

  4. says

    Boy, they must still be sweating at NSA, wondering what else he’s got and when it’ll hit the newswires.

    I wonder if they are, really. Given that there has been no downside, yet, for “Master of Lies” Clapper or any of his buddies have suffered at all. No programs have even had their budgets cut. Nobody has gotten fired. In short, the American People appear to have allowed NSA to get away with it.

    Guess what effect that’s gonna have?

  5. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    Clapper and Alexander have both lost their jobs over the security breach. I am told that Alexander offered to resign but Clapper was fired. Both are staying in post until Congress is finished asking questions.

    I have met some very senior ex-NSA staff and they say that Snowden has completely changed their calculations. There is a set of attacks that they will only perform if they think that the risk of getting caught is very small. After Snowden they are forced to consider the insider risk and they now estimate the risk of the attack being discovered at 100%.

    The other effect is that some of the establishment figures are visibly shocked by the mindset of the NSA people. When I first suggested Alexander had to go because of the breach the response was pretty negative. A week later they were repeating it.

    These people really don’t understand the cyber landscape. Their understanding of warfare is very much rooted in WWII and cold war doctrines. So they only understand defense as a tactical move to prepare for attack. Somewhat bizarrely they push for development of ‘attribution’ technologies that would allow the source of an attack to be determined (i.e. distinguish between Iran and Israel pretending to be Iran or Israeli hactivists pretending to be Iran.) If such a system was feasible and deployable then we could use the technology to eliminate the risks of cyber-attack.

    The idea that some of these generals might use the information from the surveillance systems to further peculiar right wing causes does not seem at all unlikely to me.

  6. daved says

    Oh, rain all over my parade, why don’t you? Yeah, that’s the biggest downer, that the public doesn’t get worked up about this.

  7. JonP says

    Clapper and Alexander have both lost their jobs over the security breach.

    They lost there jobs because they got caught, not because of the contents of the breach or behavior of the institution. The new leaders just need to tighten internal security procedures, I guess. Maybe only promote the incompetent people not clever enough to gain personal access to that much sensitive information.

    Personally, I’m on the edge of my seat in eager anticipation of the next round of revelations.

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