Intelligence Officials Say Snowden Is Exaggerating His Access To The NSA's 'Most Closely Guarded' Secrets

Edward Snowden

Several U.S. intelligence officials and experts doubt that National Security Agency whistleblower/leaker Edward Snowden had access to the agency’s most closely guarded secrets, Miley Riley of Businessweek reports.

Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald recently said “Snowden has enough information to cause harm to the U.S. government in a single minute than any other person has ever had,” adding that the release of the information could be the U.S. government’s “worst nightmare.

Officials suggest this was an exaggeration, according to Businessweek.

Riley writes that “every intelligence official interviewed for this story insisted the documents Snowden leaked weren’t among those the NSA guarded most closely” because he only had access to how the NSA is structured (although he managed to obtain a top secret order during training).

The spy agency’s highest-value secrets, Riley reports, involve databases detailing how NSA hackers infiltrate foreign governments and work with the tools of espionage.

The 30-year-old claimed: “My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked.”

The officials told Business Week, however, that there is no indication the contractor had access to lists of computers the agency had hacked.

“I think he was overbilling by telling people he had access to the dark inner secrets,” James Lewis, a fellow in cybersecurity at the centre for Strategic and International Studies, told Businessweek. “He did what contractors do—he padded his résumé.”

The officials contend that Snowden’s junior position as a systems administrator kept him from having access to the NSA’s most sensitive spy operations, and that the documents he stole were not critical enough to national security to limit who within the spy agency could see them. 

From Businessweek:

“The former intelligence official explains that the highest-value secrets sit in computers that have an ‘air gap’ around them: A person must physically be in the room to access what’s on them. Other data require encryption keys to access. ‘It’s like knowing where the rooms are but not what’s inside,’ says Lewis.”

A former senior official at the Department of defence said U.S. allies expressed outrage when reports of NSA snooping on Europe were published, but in reality already knew everything Snowden revealed.

Greenwald said the leaked 10,000 or so NSA documents — a copy of which Greenwald carries around with him at all times — constitute “the instruction manual for how the NSA is built,” which is certainly something.

While in Hong Kong Snowden, “was carrying four computers that enabled him to gain access to some of the US government’s most highly-classified secrets,” according to The Guardian.

It should be noted that Snowden provided the South China Morning Post with “documents” and specific details of NSA hacking civilian targets in Hong Kong and mainland China. He said he wouldn’t reveal military targets.

It is unclear where Snowden’s laptops currently are — all that is certain is that the former CIA technician reportedly landed in Hong Kong with them on May 20, and that Greenwald said he obtained the archives in Hong Kong. (Snowden left China for Moscow on June 23.)

Foreign Policy executive editor Noah Schachtman posits that the four laptops report “seems like a ruse designed to keep spies in Washington and Moscow guessing,” but that notion directly would contradict the Guardian’s reporting.

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