A man uses his cell phone to read updates about former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden answering users' questions on Twitter in this photo illustration, in Sarajevo, January 23, 2014. (REUTERS) A man uses his cell phone to read updates about former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden answering users’ questions on Twitter in this photo illustration, in Sarajevo, January 23, 2014. (REUTERS)

Last month, Edward Snowden took a direct shot at Reuters reporter Mark Hosenball. In an online Q&A session, the former National Security Agency contractor fielded this aggressive inquiry:

Q: @MichaelHargrov1 #AskSnowden Was the privacy of your co-workers considered while you were stealing their log-in and password information?

A: With all due respect to Mark Hosenball, the Reuters report that put this out there was simply wrong. I never stole any passwords, nor did I trick an army of co-workers.

Here’s the Reuters exclusive in question, under the bylines of Hosenball and Warren Strobel. Its headline alleges that Snowden “persuaded” other NSA workers to cough up their passcodes and the lede reads as follows: “Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden used login credentials and passwords provided unwittingly by colleagues at a spy base in Hawaii to access some of the classified material he leaked to the media, sources said.” The former contractor, reported Reuters, “may have” persuaded between “20 and 25” NSA workers at a Hawaii location to share their codes so that he could carry out his work as a computer systems administrator.

So: The Reuters story doesn’t say that Snowden “stole” passwords. But it does suggest some level of trickery.

Now comes NBC News National Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff with an NSA memo showing that a civilian NSA employee had resigned subsequent to “allowing” Snowden “to use his personal log-in credentials to access classified information.” This is how the memo describes the transaction:

[A]t Mr. Snowden’s request, the civilian entered his [Public Key Infrastructure] password at Mr. Snowden’s computer terminal. Unbeknownst to the civilian, Mr. Snowden was able to capture the password, allowing him even greater access to classified information. The civilian was not aware that Mr. Snowden intended to disclose classified information.

Two other individuals, the memo states, lost access to NSA “information and spaces” last August pursuant to the Snowden situation, though it’s not clear what they may have done to prompt this restriction.

It appears, then, that the NSA is alleging some form of trickery on Snowden’s part to secure a password. It stops far short, however, of leveling a claim about harvesting passwords from 20-25 co-workers, as Reuters alleges. Accordingly, Snowden’s protestations that he never tricked “an army of co-workers” aren’t negated by the NBC News story.

When Snowden first dissed Hosenball’s reporting, the Reuters reporter went back to his sources. “I double-checked with a couple of people and was led to believe that it was all correct,” Hosenball told the Erik Wemple Blog today. Regarding Snowden’s denial of the Reuters story, Hosenball noted that the piece “certainly didn’t allege that he stole anything at all.” As to whether the story alleged trickery, Hosenball said it wouldn’t be unfair to come away with that impression. “We obviously worded that very carefully,” he says. “Literally nobody alleged to me that he stole anything.”

Hosenball also suggests some lawyerly work on part of Snowden in criticizing his work: “His answers were precise and they now appear to have been contradicted in large part by this [NBC story], which totally substantiates the main thrust of our story,” says the reporter.

Glenn Greenwald, the First Look Media journalist who last year broke much of the Snowden leaks at The Guardian, cautions folks not to place too much trust in the latest developments: “There’s no reason to be the slightest bit skeptical about a memo prepared by the NSA about Snowden & intended for public release #USMedia”

When asked about this commotion, Ben Wizner, an ACLU lawyer who advises Snowden, pointed the Erik Wemple Blog to a Snowden statement in a recent New York Times article citing intelligence officials as claiming that Snowden used widely available “scraping” software to gather his documents: “It’s ironic that officials are giving classified information to journalists in an effort to discredit me for giving classified information to journalists. The difference is that I did so to inform the public about the government’s actions, and they’re doing so to misinform the public about mine.” Wizner also suggested that Snowden might have more to say on the subject before long.


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