NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s case reveals dangers of relying on defense contractors

Edward Snowden, the man who provided journalists with documents describing secret digital surveillance programs, is not the first government contractor to exploit weaknesses in the federal security screening process. Booz Allen Hamilton, where Snowden used to work, has been embarrassed more than once by its employees:

In 2008, a Booz Allen employee at MacDill Air Force Base was granted the highest-level “top secret” security clearance even though he had been convicted a few months earlier of lying to government officials in order to sneak a South African woman he had met on the Internet into the country.

Last year, the Air Force temporarily suspended the San Antonio division of the company from future contracts because it had obtained and distributed confidential Pentagon bidding data for its own competitive advantage. In 2006, the Justice Department said the firm overbilled travel expenses and initially recommended that it be barred from federal contracting.

Those incidents had little or no impact on Booz Allen’s success in recent years or on its ability to compete for federal contracts, which last year provided 99 percent of the company’s $5.8 billion in revenue. . .

Although intelligence agency reliance on outside firms has declined some in recent years, the latest available estimates still show that about 70 percent of the U.S. intelligence budget is spent on contractors. And big, well-established companies continue to have outsize influence.

That is particularly true for Booz Allen, one of the most powerful firms within the government’s defense and national security structure. Nearly half of the company’s 24,500 workers have top-secret clearance.

The company also has deep connections within the defense and intelligence communities, including James R. Clapper Jr., a former Booz Allen executive who is the current director of national intelligence, and R. James Woolsey, the former director of the CIA, who was a senior vice president at the firm until 2008.

Tom Hamburger and Robert O’Harrow

The contracting firm that gave Snowden his security clearance has been the subject of an investigation since 2011. Snowden himself apparently remains in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, where he has been staying since June 23. Last week, the Venezuelan government offered him asylum:

“I announce to the friendly governments of the world that we have decided to use international humanitarian rights to protect Snowden from the persecution that the world’s most powerful empire has unleashed against a young person who has told the truth,” Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said in a speech in Caracas. . .

A member of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Alexander Babakov, told an agency called the Russian News Service, “Given that Snowden’s U.S. passport was revoked and that he has no particular alternative, the proposal [from Maduro], especially from the mouth of the head of state, is sure to be accepted.”

And Alexei Pushkov, head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament, said in a tweet Saturday, “Sanctuary for Snowden in Venezuela would be the best decision. “ Caracas, he wrote, is already in an acute conflict with the United States. “It can’t get worse.” About Snowden, Pushkov wrote, “He can’t live at Sheremetyevo.”

There is precedent for Russia granting Snowden status as a “stateless person,” and if that happens he should have no difficulty crossing the border, a lieutenant colonel in the FSB reserve, Anatoly Yermolin, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station. Yermolin, according to the report, served in an elite espionage unit of the agency known as the “Vympel” group.

Venezuela is the first country to offer sanctuary to Snowden. The 30-year-old computer whiz has reportedly requested asylum from more than 20 countries — among them Ecuador and Bolivia, allies of Venezuela’s — since he arrived in Moscow.

Emilia Diaz, Juan Forero, and Will Englund

Daniel Ellsberg, who, like Snowden, was charged with espionage in 1971 for providing copies of the Pentagon Papers to newspapers, writes in a column in The Washington Post Monday that Snowden was right to flee the country:

I hope Snowden’s revelations will spark a movement to rescue our democracy, but he could not be part of that movement had he stayed here. There is zero chance that he would be allowed out on bail if he returned now and close to no chance that, had he not left the country, he would have been granted bail. Instead, he would be in a prison cell like Bradley Manning, incommunicado.

He would almost certainly be confined in total isolation, even longer than the more than eight months Manning suffered during his three years of imprisonment before his trial began recently. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Torture described Manning’s conditions as “cruel, inhuman and degrading.” (That realistic prospect, by itself, is grounds for most countries granting Snowden asylum, if they could withstand bullying and bribery from the United States.)

Snowden believes that he has done nothing wrong. I agree wholeheartedly. More than 40 years after my unauthorized disclosure of the Pentagon Papers, such leaks remain the lifeblood of a free press and our republic. One lesson of the Pentagon Papers and Snowden’s leaks is simple: secrecy corrupts, just as power corrupts.

Daniel Ellsberg

Opinion writer Jonathan Capehart responds to Ellsberg’s argument:

I have no rebuttal to Ellsberg here. The U.S. is a different country now. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 ensured that. So, too, did the enemy this nation now confronts. One not bound by borders or that has a titular head. With the new and expanded surveillance powers granted by Congress and then upheld and expanded further by secret rulings in secret courts, there are legitimate concerns and questions raised by Snowden and what he has revealed.

Still, whether treated like Bradley Manning or not, the movement Ellsberg says/wants Snowden leads would be better served if Snowden were here on American soil rather than holed up at the Moscow airport. His punishment would be harsh, but what else should he expect after stealing and publicizing some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets?

Jonathan Capehart

The secrecy of the intelligence programs and of the laws and legal doctrines that justify them is worrisome, argues Ezra Klein:

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA court) that governs the national surveillance state is also remaking the law. But it’s remaking the law in secret. The public has no opportunity to weigh in, and Congress can’t really make changes, because few know what the court is deciding, and almost no one can discuss the decisions without endangering themselves.

One example: The Wall Street Journal reports that the FISA court quietly reinterpreted the language of the PATRIOT Act so the word “relevant” — which governs the information the government can scoop up — no longer means, well, “relevant.” It means “yeah, sure, whatever you want.”

The Journal quotes Mark Eckenwiler,who served as the Justice Department’s primary authority on federal criminal surveillance law until December, saying, ”‘Relevant’ has long been a broad standard, but the way the court is interpreting it, to mean, in effect, ‘everything,’ is new.”. . .

Surveillance types make a distinction between secrecy of laws, secrecy of procedures and secrecy of operations. The expectation is that the laws that empower or limit the government’s surveillance powers are always public. The programs built atop those laws are often secret. And the individual operations are almost always secret. As long as the public knows about and agreed to the law, the thinking goes, it’s okay for the government to build a secret surveillance architecture atop it.

But the FISA court is, in effect, breaking the first link in that chain. The public no longer knows about the law itself, and most of Congress may not know, either. The courts have remade the law, but they’ve done so secretly, without public comment or review.

Ezra Klein

For past coverage of Snowden and what he revealed, continue reading here.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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