Now that the documentary, Citizen Four, has been released, and now that it has won an Oscar, it’s time to revisit unanswered questions, which I raised soon after Snowden’s identity was revealed to the world.
This is not an article about the value of the documents Edward Snowden took from the NSA. I leave those judgments to others.
This article is about Snowden himself and his back-story.
So far, I see no reporter who has directly asked Snowden even faintly challenging questions about his background.
I find that quite odd. And the number of people who don’t find it odd makes the situation even odder.
If a man came to me, stating he was an ex-CIA officer who had taken a huge cache of vital documents from the other major spying agency in the US, the NSA, I would want to know a great deal about him.
I wouldn’t care that he was an engaging young man who appeared to be committing a heroic act on behalf of freedom. I wouldn’t care, because I know that people who work for intelligence agencies are prepared to lie. They are trained to lie. They believe in lying. This is basic knowledge that any reasonable reporter would have.
Yet, in Snowden’s case, an exception has been made. Why?
As soon as you see a photo of Snowden for the first time, you realize he’s the perfect image of the techie’s counter-spy: young, thin, bespectacled, “vulnerable.”
You have to wonder: if he’d been 60, balding, fat, with a constant sheen of nervous perspiration on his chubby cheeks, would he have grabbed so much positive attention from the get-go? Would reporters have refrained from grilling him about his back-story?
Within a day of Snowden’s identity being revealed, details of that story appeared in the press.
Upon reading the story, a number of questions sprang to mind. To my knowledge, none of them have been satisfactorily answered, or even posed by journalists who have had direct access to Snowden.
Why do potential or possible holes in Snowden’s back-story matter? Because holes always matter. They can lead to unexpected discoveries; they can reveal that a person is more than he says he is, different than he says he is.
In 2003, at age 19, without a high school diploma, Snowden enlists in the Army. He begins a training program to join the Special Forces. The sequence here is fuzzy. At what point after enlistment can a new soldier start this training program? Does he need to demonstrate some exceptional ability before Special Forces puts him in that program?
Snowden breaks both legs in a training exercise. He’s discharged from the Army. Is that automatic? How about healing and then resuming Army service?
If Snowden was accepted in the Special Forces training program because he had special computer skills, then why discharge him simply because he broke both legs?
Circa 2003 (?), Snowden gets a job as a security guard for an NSA facility at the University of Maryland. He specifically wanted to work for NSA? It was just a generic job opening he found out about?
Also in 2003 (?), Snowden shifts jobs. He’s now in the CIA, in IT. He has no high school diploma. He’s a young computer genius?
What kind of work does he do for the CIA until, in 2007…
He is sent to Geneva. He’s only 23 years old. The CIA gives him diplomatic cover there. Diplomatic cover is serious status. Snowden is put in charge of maintaining computer-network security. A major job. Obviously, he has access to a wide range of classified documents. Sound a little odd? He’s just a kid. Maybe he has his GED by now. Otherwise, he still doesn’t have a high school diploma.
Snowden reportedly says that during this period, in Geneva, one of the incidents that really sours him on the CIA is the “turning of a Swiss banker.” One night, CIA guys get a banker drunk, encourage him to drive home, the banker gets busted, the CIA guys help him out of that jam, and then with that bond formed, they eventually get the banker to reveal deep banking secrets to the Agency.
Snowden is this naïve? He doesn’t know by now that the CIA does this sort of thing all the time? He’s shocked? He “didn’t sign up for this?”
Furthermore, if this banker story is true, and if Snowden is the source for it, why did he reveal it? All sorts of people should be able to do a little digging and figure out who the Swiss banker is—thus blowing the banker’s cover and exposing him. Was that Snowden’s intention?
In 2009, Snowden leaves the CIA.
It should noted here that Snowden claimed he could do very heavy damage to the entire US intelligence community in 2008, but decided to wait because he thought Obama, just coming into the Presidency, might make good changes.
After two years with the CIA in Geneva, Snowden really had the capability to “take down most of the US intelligence network,” or a major chunk of it? He had that much access to classified data?
Snowden goes on to work for two private defense contractors, Dell and Booze Allen Hamilton. In this latter job, Snowden is assigned to work at the NSA.
He’s an outsider, but he claims to have access to so much sensitive NSA data that he can take down the whole US intelligence network in a single day. Really?
How many people work in highly classified jobs for the NSA? Here is one man, Snowden, who is working for Booz Allen, an outside NSA contractor, and he can get access to, and copy, documents that expose the spying collaboration between NSA and the biggest tech companies in the world—and he can get away with it.
If so, then NSA is a sieve leaking out of all holes. Because that means a whole lot of other, higher-level NSA employees can likewise steal these documents. Many, many other people can copy them and take them. Are we to believe this?
“Let’s see. Who’s coming to work for us here at NSA today? Oh, new whiz kid. Ed Snowden. Outside contractor. Twenty-nine years old. No high school diploma. Has a GED. He worked for the CIA and quit. Hmm. The CIA. They don’t like us and we don’t like them. Why did Snowden quit the CIA? Oh, never mind, who cares? No problem.
“Tell you what. Let’s give this kid access to our most sensitive data. Sure. Why not? Everything. Let Snowden see it all. Sure. What the hell. I’m feeling charitable. He seems like a nice kid.”
Sometimes cognitive dissonance, which used to be called contradiction, rings a gong so loud it knocks you off your chair.
Let’s see. NSA is the most awesome spying agency ever devised in this world. If you cross the street in Podunk, Anywhere, USA, to buy an ice cream soda, on a Tuesday afternoon in July, they can know.
They know if you sit at the counter and drink that soda or take it and move to the only table in the store. They know if you lick the foam from the top of the glass with your tongue or pick the foam with your straw and then lick it.
But this agency, with all its vast power and its dollars…with the brightest, sharpest minds in the business…
Can’t protect its own data from outright theft. Can’t lock up its own store. They overlooked their own security systems. Never set them up right in the first place. Forgot to.
And they can’t track one of their own, a man who came to work every day, a man who made up a story about needing treatment in Hong Kong for epilepsy and then skipped the country.
Just can’t find him.
Can’t find him in Hong Kong, where he does a sit-down video interview with Glenn Greenwald and Poitras and MacAskill. Can’t track the reporters to Snowden’s hotel.
Can’t find that place where Snowden’s staying.
No. Can’t find him or spy on his communications while he’s in Hong Kong. Can’t figure out he’s booked a flight to Russia.
Can’t intercept him at the airport before he leaves for Russia. Too difficult.
And this man, this employee, is walking around with three or four laptops that contain the keys to all the secret spying knowledge in the known cosmos.
Can’t locate those laptops. The most brilliant technical minds of this or any other generation can find a computer in Outer Mongolia in the middle of a blizzard, but these walking-around computers in Hong Kong are somehow beyond reach.
And before this man, Snowden, this employee, skipped Hawaii, he was able to access the layout of entire US intelligence networks. Yes. He was able to use a thumb drive.
He walked into work with a thumb drive, plugged in, and stole…everything. He stole enough to “take down the entire US intelligence network in a single afternoon.”
Not only that, but anyone who worked at this super-agency as a systems-analyst supervisor, or higher, could have done the same thing. Could have stolen the keys to the kingdom.
This is why NSA geniuses with IQs over 180 decided, in the midst of the Snowden affair, that they needed to draft “tighter rules and procedures” for their employees. Right.
A few thousand pieces of internal security they hadn’t realized they needed before would be put in place.
This is, let me remind you again, the most secretive spying agency in the world. The richest spying agency. The smartest spying agency.
But somehow, over the years, they’d overlooked their own security. They’d left lots of doors open.
But now, yes now, having been made aware of this vulnerability, the Agency would make corrections.
Should we believe the NSA is this weak and bumbling, when it comes to protecting its data, when it comes to tracking down one of its own who has stolen the farm? Or should we entertain the possibility that Snowden didn’t really steal all that information himself? Did someone at the CIA give it to him? Was this a long-term CIA op?
Yes, strange possibilities. But the world of intelligence is strange. It’s designed that way.
May 20, 2013: Snowden arrives in Hong Kong from Hawaii. He’s just taken medical leave from the NSA. This is not troubling to his employer, despite the fact that, as AFP reports, Snowden worked briefly at the US Embassy in New Delhi (2010) and abruptly left India, citing medical problems on that occasion as well.
Both times, Snowden didn’t seek medical help in the country in which he was employed.
June 1, 2013: Three reporters connected with The Guardian—Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Laura Poitras—fly from New York to Hong Kong, and begin their week-long interview of Snowden. If this raises red flags, it doesn’t lead to intercepting Snowden.
June 5, 2013: The Guardian publishes its first article containing NSA leaks. The next three days see more NSA revelations, but there is no mention of Snowden.
June 9: The Guardian goes public about Snowden for the first time. According to Reuters, the NSA started an “urgent search” for Snowden several days before June 9—perhaps as early as June 1.
June 10: Snowden checks out of his hotel, but remains in Hong Kong. The US intelligence apparatus still can’t find him.
June 12: The South China Post publishes an interview with Snowden, who says he’ll stay in Hong Kong until he’s told he has to go. The NSA still can’t find him.
June 14: The UK Home Office orders airlines to deny passage to Snowden, if he tries to come to the UK.
June 20, 21: The Guardian publishes more top-secret documents from the Snowden cache.
June 23: Free and unencumbered, Snowden flies to Moscow with Wikileaks’ Sarah Harrison.
During this entire period (May 20-June23), the NSA, and other agencies of the US government, have been unable to locate Snowden?
They’ve been unable to get hold of, or disable, his famous four laptops, which presumably contain all the documents he took from the NSA. Instead, Snowden transfers the documents to Greenwald and Poitras in Hong Kong, hides out successfully, and makes his flight to Moscow.
In past articles, based on all these questions and oddities and paradoxes, I’ve spelled out alternative scenarios about who Snowden might be, and what’s really going on here. For this piece, in the wake of Citizen Four, I just want to refresh the questions, the unanswered questions about Snowden and the NSA.
And point out that no reporters who have had direct access to Snowden have pressed these questions.
He’s been given a free pass.
“Well, why should we wrangle with Snowden? He handed us the documents? Why should we look a gift horse in the mouth?”
Because in the spying game, things are not what they seem. In the spying game, ops are layered. They have multiple purposes. Cover stories. These ops conceal their bottom lines.
Snowden worked for the CIA. He was a spy. And at certain levels, the CIA and the NSA hate each other. They compete for federal money, for status, for prestige.
The NSA doesn’t just spy on private citizens. The NSA spies on politicians and bankers and corporate CEOs, and those people know it and they don’t like it, and they want to relieve themselves of that burden and that threat. They want to curb the power of the NSA as it applies to them.
They would welcome, as perhaps the CIA would, putting a crimp in NSA’s spying capabilities, limiting those capabilities in some way, at least giving NSA pause for thought about risking further exposure beyond Snowden’s disclosures.
For these and other reasons, the back-story of Edward Snowden is more than an academic pursuit, and the unanswered questions are of more than passing interest.
Educated privacy advocates who spend a great of their time commenting on security issues may not want to disturb the image of Snowden; and they certainly don’t want to be called conspiracy nuts re their view of who Snowden might be; but reporters shouldn’t care about that. Reporters should vet their sources as thoroughly as possible.
That’s SOP. Only this time, from all available information, it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen when Greenwald, Poitras, and MacAskill met Snowden. It didn’t happen after Snowden gave them his cache of NSA data. And it isn’t happening now.
The author of three explosive collections, THE MATRIX REVEALED, EXIT FROM THE MATRIX, and POWER OUTSIDE THE MATRIX, Jon was a candidate for a US Congressional seat in the 29th District of California. He maintains a consulting practice for private clients, the purpose of which is the expansion of personal creative power. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, he has worked as an investigative reporter for 30 years, writing articles on politics, medicine, and health for CBS Healthwatch, LA Weekly, Spin Magazine, Stern, and other newspapers and magazines in the US and Europe. Jon has delivered lectures and seminars on global politics, health, logic, and creative power to audiences around the world. You can sign up for his free emails at http://www.nomorefakenews.com