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Snowden and Greenwald: The Men Who Leaked the Secrets

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Within the world of the NSA, there is little difference between those employed by the agency and the private sector. Where there was a clear difference, was between the conventional management types and the scruffy hackers and IT geniuses who now filled the rank and file. "It was a weird world – there were these kids walking down the halls, and I never knew what color their hair would be when I'd see them," says Richard "Dickie" George, a 40-year veteran of the NSA who, before retiring in 2011, oversaw the agency's Information Assurance Directorate in the 2000s, hiring scores of young hackers. "They had ideas us older folk didn't have, and we counted on that."

To some intelligence insiders, it also made them a risk. "There was some discussions in the beginning of 'We're going after hackers, so how do we know that they'll be good guys?'" says James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The real problem is that there's a generational difference. You have an entrenched culture at the NSA, and suddenly you bring these kids in from outside, and they have very different attitudes toward information."

By the time Snowden joined the agency's workforce, the surveillance he would later expose was becoming not just institutionalized but very big business. "It was around 2009, 2010 that you saw the full flower of that massive, massive bubble of money," says Drake. "And people were taking it for a ride as far as it could go."

This system, however, was not without its internal problems. "When you hire all these contractors to do what were inherently government functions, you need the documents that authorize these kinds of access and operations," Drake says. Paperwork was generated at record speed. Once-secret documents like FISA orders, which used to be stowed in special safes that only a few would be able to access, were now digitized and collected into a vast trove of electronic records that held the entire architecture of the national-security state.

Snowden began his NSA career in Japan, where he was given a fairly mundane job supervising upgrades to NSA computer systems. He'd later move back to the U.S. – making a campaign donation to former congressman Ron Paul in March 2012 – and settle in Hawaii. He worked as a systems administrator and eventually as an infrastructure analyst, including within the agency's special Threat Operations Center (NTOC) on Oahu. Though he wasn't one of the elite hackers, he held the keys to highly classified computer networks, and was likely also responsible for building target lists in preparation for future cyber­conflict and looking for electronic backdoors into foreign networks. According to Aid, who has spoken to numerous sources familiar with Snowden's work, "he had access to things that no one at NSA Hawaii had access to." But to them it wasn't alarming, "it was just Ed doing his job."

Prior to 2009, Snowden had considered leaking government secrets when he was at the CIA, but held off, he later said, not wanting to harm agents in the field, and hoping that Obama would reform the system. His optimism didn't last long. "[I] watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in," he later said. As a result, he added, "I got hardened." The more Snowden saw of the NSA's actual business – and, particularly, the more he read "true information," including a 2009 Inspector General's report detailing the Bush era's warrantless-surveillance program – the more he realized that there were actually two governments: the one that was elected, and the other, secret regime, governing in the dark. "If the highest officials in government can break the law without fearing punishment or even any repercussions at all, secret powers become tremendously dangerous."

Another concern was what he viewed as the willingness of big business to further government secrecy. In 2010, Snowden responded to an Ars Technica post about a vulnerability in Cisco's wiretapping system, which had been designed to meet the needs of U.S. law enforcement. "It really concerns me how little this sort of corporate behavior bothers those outside of technology circles," he wrote. "Society really seems to have developed an unquestioning obedience towards spooky types." He wondered: "Did we get to where we are today via a slippery slope that was entirely within our control to stop, or was it a relatively instantaneous sea change that sneaked in undetected because of pervasive government secrecy?"

Snowden was by then branching out to more advanced levels of ­cybersecurity. In 2010, he took an "ethical hacking" course that teaches computer-security workers how hackers infiltrate large computer systems and operate invisibly. This kind of skill is highly prized in the modern NSA, where Hayden's successor, Gen. Keith Alexander, a slick promoter of cybersecurity programs that virtually no one in Congress understood, relentlessly pushed the government to grant the NSA more spying authority and more resources. "He had unfailing credibility, and they just deferred to him," says one former White House official, who grew alarmed by Alexander's ability to spin members of both Houses, and the president. "Until recently, cybersecurity was magic, and Keith Alexander was the Wizard of Oz."

As a result, Alexander was able to fully realize a concept, promoted by Hayden, of the NSA's "owning the Net" – gaining access to virtually everything. By February 2012, the agency had laid out its strategic vision in a five-page mission statement declaring its intention to acquire data from "anyone." One program in support of this goal, known as "Treasure Map," was so overarching it claimed to map out information from "any device, anywhere, all the time." The agency referred to the present as the "golden age of SIGINT."

"They built a secret surveillance system that penetrated the fabric of our society and Snowden saw all this," says Drake, who has spoken with Snowden and describes him as "like a Tron: cruising the networks and going into different systems – all for legitimate reasons. But in the course of his travels, he realized, 'Wow, could he be part of enabling this system? Could he continue to do that and live with himself?'"

Snowden has been vague about when he decided to leak, but he has been very clear on what compelled him to act. "It was seeing a continuing litany of lies from senior officials to Congress – and therefore the American people – and the realization that Congress . . . wholly supported the lies," he said. "Seeing someone in the position of James Clapper – director of National Intelligence – baldly lying to the public without repercussion is the evidence of a subverted democracy."

Snowden in Hong Kong.
The Guardian via Getty Images

In April 2012, while working for Dell, Snowden reportedly began to download documents, many pertaining to the eavesdropping programs run by the NSA and its British equivalent, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ. Eleven months later, he quit his job and accepted another, with Booz Allen, which he said he'd sought specifically for the broader access he'd have to the wealth of information pertaining to U.S. cyberspying. "My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked," Snowden told The South China Morning Post. He spent the following three months downloading part of what officials later estimated were well more than 50,000 documents, divided into four categories: NSA capabilities, partnerships with private tech companies and foreign-intelligence agencies, requests for information by other U.S. agencies, and intelligence reports based on its collection of electronic intercepts. Now, he had to figure out how to expose the material.

He would not, he knew, follow the path of Thomas Drake, whose case he had carefully studied, along with many other NSA whistle-blowers from the 1990s and early 2000s who had taken their grievances, often undocumented, to Congress or the press. "Look, for 12 years, much of what Snowden would disclose had already been discussed by others like myself," says Drake. "He knew, based on what had happened with us, that he'd have to provide some kind of documentation if he were to have any chance of being heard. But even that might not have been sufficient. The difference was that the whole system had become fully institutionalized."

But Snowden also understood that giving the documents to WikiLeaks, or simply posting them himself, had drawbacks. "I don't desire to enable the Bradley Manning argument that these were released recklessly and unreviewed," Snowden later said. "I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest. There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn't turn over, because harming people isn't my goal. Transparency is."

The mainstream press, another option, seemed even riskier. Recalling how The New York Times delayed Risen's 2005 warrantless-wiretapping story under pressure from the government, Snowden feared the same happening to him. "When the subject of [one's] reporting is an institution as wildly beyond the control of law as the US Intelligence Community, even the best intentions of the New York Times begin to quaver," he writes me in an e-mail. "You can't stare down a spy agency without being prepared to burn your life to the ground over the smallest grain of truth, because truth is the only thing they are afraid of. Truth means accountability, and accountability terrifies those who have gone beyond what is necessary."

In mid-May, Snowden took a short leave of absence from his job at Booz Allen to return to the mainland, where, he told his supervisors, he was going to get treatment for epilepsy, a condition he'd been diagnosed with the year before. But instead, he took a direct flight to Hong Kong and, checking into the Mira, a $300-per-night boutique hotel overlooking Kowloon Park, made contact with Glenn Greenwald. This was their first direct correspondence since December, when Snowden, who'd given up his attempts to persuade Greenwald to learn encryption, turned to filmmaker Laura Poitras, whom he knew, as Snowden told me, "understood the risks of weak security."

The director of two films that were highly critical of U.S. counterterror policy and the war in Iraq, Poitras had found herself in the crosshairs of the U.S. government after the 2006 release of the Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country, which looked at the experiences of Iraqis under the U.S. occupation. The Department of Homeland Security reportedly put her on a watch list, and over the next six years, she estimates she was stopped and detained nearly 40 times at U.S. border crossings. All of this had made Poitras intensely paranoid. (She declined to comment for this story.) To prevent her work from being spied upon, she learned encryption. That allowed Snowden, who wrote her anonymously, to outline, over the course of several e-mails, a number of government-surveillance programs.

Poitras showed some of the e-mails to Greenwald, who sensed their legitimacy right away. He installed encryption software, and under Poitras' tutelage, began his own conversation with the source, who was eager for the journalists to meet him in person. Greenwald was wary: "I told him, 'I need to have some sample of the documents to prove you are who you say you are and you have something worthwhile.'" So Snowden sent Greenwald about two dozen documents, including a PowerPoint presentation revealing the NSA PRISM program, by which the government, gaining access through U.S. Internet companies like Google, Facebook and Apple, could retrieve volumes of user data, including e-mails, chat records and search histories.

Sitting on his porch with the dogs at his feet, Greenwald opened the documents and gasped. "I mean, holy shit, right? Just out of nowhere, I'm holding in my hand 25 top-secret documents from the NSA, an agency that had rarely leaked anything, let alone massive numbers of top-secret documents." Breathless, he ran to tell Miranda. "I cannot believe what I fucking have in my hands," he said.

Greenwald flew to New York, where he met Poitras, and with a third journalist, longtime Guardian correspondent Ewen MacAskill, who'd been assigned as the paper's representative, left for Hong Kong. In the cab on their way to JFK, Poitras, who'd been sent a much larger set of documents by Snowden, gave Greenwald a short tutorial on how to open and read the files on her memory sticks. As soon as the plane took off, he opened his laptop and began to go through the material. "I immediately realized that the 25 documents he had sent me, which I thought were the best he had – those were just random," he says. "I had thousands of documents just like them, on every conceivable topic, the vast bulk top-secret, some of them much better than the ones he had sent me. It was the mother of all leaks."

"How long had the source been planning this?" Greenwald thought. Just the organization of the material alone would have taken months, if not longer. Each memory stick had an elaborate filing system. "On the front page were, let's say, 12 files. You click on one of the files and there are 30 more files. You click on one of those files and there are six more, and finally you got the documents. And every last motherfucking document that he gave us was incredibly elegant and beautifully organized." Greenwald had no doubt that the leaker had read every page; not a single one was misfiled. "It's 1,000 percent clear that he read and very carefully processed every document that he gave us by virtue of his incredibly anal, ridiculously elaborate electronic filing system that these USB sticks contained."

All the way to Hong Kong, over a 16-hour flight, Greenwald pored through the materials. "There was stuff on what's going on in Iraq, in Afghanistan, with the drone program, spying on our allies, the technology of how this works, the intelligence budget – every possible thing, all completely fucking secret, and I'm just reading through it at my leisure on the plane." Memos and PowerPoint presentations detailed the breathtaking scope of the NSA's global operations: metadata collection on American and foreign citizens; spying on the communications and Internet traffic of world leaders; intelligence operations aimed at oil companies and other businesses. Poitras, sitting a number of rows back, wandered up to check on Greenwald now and then, at which point, he says, "I'd hop out of my fucking seat, like, 'Have you seen this? Does this actually say what I think it says?'"

He describes it as his "holy shit" moment. "We just sat there in elation," he says. "For both of us, it was the moment of a lifetime."

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