Uncertainty surrounds Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency who made public documents detailing the surprising scope of U.S. digital surveillance operations. This is a summary of Tuesday’s news concerning Snowden and what he revealed. For more on the documents themselves, continue reading here.
Watch the interview Snowden gave last week from a hotel in Hong Kong, to where he fled to avoid U.S. authorities:
One set of questions concerns how Snowden was able to access the documents he shared publicly:
Counterintelligence investigators are scrutinizing how a 29-year-old contractor who said he leaked top-secret National Security Agency documents was able to gain access to what should be highly compartmentalized information, according to current and former administration and intelligence officials. . . Joel Brenner, a former NSA inspector general, said any investigation needs to focus on how Snowden “had access to such a startling range of information.” ¶ “The spy you want in an organization may not be the executive assistant to the secretary of state; it may be the guy in the bowels of the IT department because he has system-administrator privileges and because that person is also in a position to insert malware into your system to facilitate remote access,” Brenner said.
Snowden was an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, and his actions also raised questions about the government’s reliance on contractors for intelligence work:
Never before have so many U.S. intelligence workers been hired so quickly, or been given access to secret government information through networked computers. In recent years, about one in four intelligence workers has been a contractor, and 70 percent or more of the intelligence community’s secret budget has gone to private firms. . . But in the rush to fill jobs, the government has relied on faulty procedures to vet intelligence workers, documents and interviews show. At the same time, intelligence agencies have not hired enough in-house government workers to manage and oversee the contractors, contracting specialists said.
Booz Allen formally terminated Snowden Tuesday. For more on the issues of contractors working as spies, watch the discussion below:
Other questions are about Snowden’s current and future whereabouts. He has said he intends to seek asylum, although making his case for asylum in court could be difficult:
Asylum is not simply a matter of whether or not a foreign country likes you and shares your beliefs; it is a matter of national and international law, both of which can be highly formalized. But. . . asylum could be his best shot . . . First, he has to prove that he meets the definition of an asylum-seeker, which likely means demonstrating that he’s being persecuted either because of his political speech or because he belongs to a protected group, typically defined, for example, by race or religion. Second, he has to prove that he hasn’t committed any serious non-political crimes. Given that the United States is expected to indict Snowden for leaking national security secrets, he’d have to prove that his leaks are considered a crime primarily for political reasons.
At Wonkblog, Timothy Lee comments on the fact that it is more common for people from other countries to seek asylum in the United States than it is for U.S. citizens to seek asylum elsewhere.
In response to Snowden’s revelations, President Obama told reporters last week that members of Congress had been briefed on the NSA’s activities. The Fact Checker writes that this was an exaggeration:
Obama’s point probably would have been stronger if he had said that lawmakers had an opportunity to learn more about the program and should have taken the time to learn as much about it as possible. There may be serious questions about how much lawmakers, without the benefit of staff expertise, can drill down into the details of such programs, but it is part of their job description.
For more about the NSA and its operations, read past coverage here.