While last week’s NSA revelations raised a slew of critically important questions about civil liberties and government power, it wasn’t long before attention turned to a more straightforward inquiry: who leaked the information?
It was easy to imagine a lengthy, multi-agency investigation to root out the leaker, but as it turns out, that’s wholly unnecessary: he introduced himself to the world over the weekend.
The individual responsible for one of the most significant leaks in US political history is Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of the defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Snowden has been working at the National Security Agency for the last four years as an employee of various outside contractors, including Booz Allen and Dell.
The Guardian, after several days of interviews, is revealing his identity at his request. From the moment he decided to disclose numerous top-secret documents to the public, he was determined not to opt for the protection of anonymity. “I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” he said.
At its core, the larger story should focus more on the debate about expansive government overreach and where a free society should draw lines between security and privacy, and less on the motivations of one young man who exposed the apparent overreach.
That said, the Snowden story is quite fascinating for a variety of reasons. Indeed, consider the statement released yesterday afternoon by his employer.
“Booz Allen can confirm that Edward Snowden, 29, has been an employee of our firm for less than 3 months, assigned to a team in Hawaii. News reports that this individual has claimed to have leaked classified information are shocking, and if accurate, this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm. We will work closely with our clients and authorities in their investigation of this matter.”
I know nothing about Booz Allen’s internal policies, but it seems likely the firm required Snowden to agree not only to its code of conduct, but also to a non-disclosure agreement. Snowden, for good or ill, believed he had a responsibility to leak the NSA information anyway, so it stands to reason the firm is displeased.
But the part of the statement that jumped out at me was the “employee of our firm for less than 3 months” line.
Booz Allen, in other words, which happens to rely overwhelmingly on government contracts for its very existence, provides detailed information on highly classified NSA programs to employees who’ve been around less than three months?
It’s probably a tangential point, but it’s rather amazing leaks of this magnitude aren’t more common. It may be tempting to think the most sensitive information about intelligence gathering would be limited to a small group of powerful officials, but Snowden offers a powerful reminder to the contrary – we’re dealing with a large group of people, spanning the private sector and multiple branches of government, who knew about the NSA programs in question.*
Also note, Snowden is currently in Hong Kong, which he believes has “a spirited commitment to free speech.” That’s … odd. There’s certainly ample room for criticism of the U.S. system, but China not only has a vast surveillance state, it also relies on heavy-handed censorship of speech, press, and online communications – the kind of actions that would be largely unthinkable in the United States.
Indeed, in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, Hong Kong slipped to 58th place internationally. The United States could be far better, but it was 32nd.
Regardless, in his interview with The Guardian, Snowden expects legal repercussions for his actions, and lawmakers in both parties yesterday expressed support for prosecuting him. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said, “If Edward Snowden did in fact leak the NSA data as he claims, the United States government must prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law and begin extradition proceedings at the earliest date…. The United States must make it clear that no country should be granting this individual asylum.”
The Justice Department has reportedly initiated a criminal probe.
* Update: Booz Allen, as a company, has about 25,000 employees. How many have top-secret security clearances? About half. Obviously, what really matters in the bigger picture is the scope of government surveillance, but as part of the discussion, there also appears to be a systemic issue related to who has access to what classified information.