National Security Agency whistleblower/leaker Edward Snowden reportedly flew to Hong Kong carrying “four laptop computers that enable him to gain access to some of the US government’s most highly-classified secrets,” raising the concern that data could have been compromised in China or Russia.
But the information in his head may be more valuable, and accessible, right now.
Beyond trying to acquire information about the 10,000 NSA files Snowden accessed, a U.S. adversary would want to learn from Snowden’s expertise of internal NSA processes — such as its recruiting and vetting processes — to gain insight into America’s decision loop.
“Snowden understood exactly how far he could push [the NSA],” Robert Caruso, a former assistant command security manager in the Navy and consultant, told Business Insider. “That, coupled with his successful exploitation of our entire vetting process, makes him very dangerous.”
Basically, Snowden “transformed himself into the kind of cybersecurity expert the NSA is desperate to recruit” while he simultaneously developed the moral convictions motivating his leak of classified documents detailing the NSA’s global dragnet.
A quick timeline of Snowden’s progression:
- In 2006 Snowden, in a chat room, suggested that he was disgruntled with NSA’s snooping when he said “NSA’s new surveillance system. … That’s the sound of freedom citizen!”
- Around 2007 he became a CIA technician operating under cover as a “diplomatic attaché” in Geneva.
- In 2010 the NSA taught him how to be an elite hacker, acquiring the skills to sneak into NSA computer systems and ultimately gather the highly classified surveillance documents he leaked.
- In April 2013 Snowden took a job as an “infrastructure analyst” — a role involving finding ways to break into Internet and telephone traffic — at Booz Allen with the motive to gain “access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked.”
According to Caruso, Snowden knows how to “red team” humans — meaning that he can fool the “same people who are charged with keeping the next him from happening.”
Essentially, Snowden hacked the vetting process and deftly slipped away through the NSA’s cracks.
He then downloaded 10,000 classified files; stashed highly encrypted copies all over the world; flew to China on May 20; met up with Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill as well as documentarian Laura Poitras; outed himself; leaked information to the South China Morning Post; and then flew to Moscow on June 23.
The result has been the exposure of concrete evidence detailing a domestic spying apparatus of questionable effectiveness that for years has benefitted from weak oversight and misdirection to harvest data.
Furthermore, Snowden’s disclosures — one of largest leaks of intelligence in U.S. history — informed the rest of the world that the NSA, often in cooperation with governments, is collecting their communications too.
“I cannot and will not touch on his actions after Hawaii,” Caruso told Business Insider. “I will say that he understands how to exploit our systems — human systems, vetting systems, and accountability systems.”
Fast forward to Snowden’s flight to Moscow.
Olga Bychkova, a radio host from Radio Echo in Moscow, was at the airport’s transit zone when Snowden arrived one month ago. She described what she saw to Anna Nemtsova of Foreign Policy:
“I saw about 20 Russian officials, supposedly FSB agents in suits, crowding around somebody in a restricted area of the airport,” Bychkova said. “The Kremlin pretends they have nothing to do with him being stuck in Moscow, but in reality they’re all over him.”
After Snowden formally accepted all offers of support or asylum on July 12, former senior U.S. intelligence analyst Joshua Foust, wrote that the “involvement of known FSB operatives at his [Snowden’s] asylum acceptance … suggests this was a textbook [Russian] intelligence operation, and not a brave plea for asylum from political persecution.”
Snowden, in a letter to former U.S. senator Gordon Humphrey (Rep-NH) published on July 16, denied that he has or will provide information to a foreign intelligence service:
“I have not provided any information that would harm our people — agent or not — and I have no intention to do so. … Further, no intelligence service – not even our own – has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect. … I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture.”
Other secrets lie in the how the CIA technician-turned-NSA hacker is able to understand and exploit the “human systems, vetting systems, and accountability systems” of the world’s largest spy agency.
The bottom line: Edward Snowden, an elite hacker who “carefully read” 10,000 classified NSA files and knows the NSA’s interview questions, is in the jurisdiction of Russian intelligence agents, who are masters of human exploitation.
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