Edward Snowden: The Untold Story of How One Patriotic American Exposed NSA Surveillance
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“I can't in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom, and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building... the NSA specifically targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default... they are intent on making every conversation and every form of behavior in the world known to them.”
Edward Snowden might not yet be a historical figure, but he certainly is a hero. He is the whistleblower of all whistleblowers, the American who blew the lid off of Washington's spying on private citizens. But Snowden’s leak revealed that it’s not just the U.S. government that is spying on virtually every American – big American telecommunications companies are also helping them to spy as well.
Snowden’s upbringing is largely uneventful. His maternal grandfather was a Coast Guard rear admiral and his father was also an officer in the Coast Guard. His mother was a U.S. District Court clerk. His parents divorced around the time that he would have graduated high school in 2001, but Snowden is a high school dropout. After a nine-month absence due to mononucleosis, he simply took the GED exam and then began taking community college classes. Despite a lack of a bachelor’s degree, he worked at a master’s online from the University of Liverpool.
How Snowden Became a Government Employee
While often thought of as little more than a computer geek, Snowden is in fact a former Army Reserve member and even signed up for special forces training. However, he broke both of his legs in a training accident and was discharged soon afterward. His motivation for joining the military was not to avenge the 9/11 attacks, but specifically the invasion of Iraq and a desire to liberate oppressed peoples in the country. He enlisted in April 2004, and was discharged in September of that year.
In 2005, he then worked at the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Study of Language as a security guard. While a training ground for the National Security Agency (NSA), this is not a classified facility. However, Snowden did have to obtain a security clearance to work here. In 2006, he accepted a job with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after speaking to them at a job fair. Known as a “computer wizard,” he lived in a hotel room while he completed his training.
His first CIA assignment took place under diplomatic cover in Geneva, in March 2007. He claims that while there, he saw agents get a Swiss banker drunk, then had him arrested when he drove home. The CIA then, according to Snowden, offered to help him out in exchange for him becoming an informant. These claims are obviously disputed by the CIA.
He then worked for Dell starting in 2009, as an NSA subcontractor, where he was known as a “genius among geniuses.” His time there mainly involved training employees on how to protect data from Chinese hackers.
From NSA Subcontractor to Whistleblower
It was during his time at Dell that Snowden began to become disillusioned with his work. He claims that his breaking point was seeing James Clapper, then Director of National Intelligence, lie to Congress under oath on March 15, 2013 (ironically, the Ides of March). He took his now-famous position at Booz Allen Hamilton in mid-2014, with the explicit intention of finding out just how deep the spying rabbit hole went. He even acted as a bit of an espionage agent while there, obtaining login credentials from over 20 employees by claiming that he needed them to do his job. Snowden, for his part, disputes that he ever did this. However, it has been corroborated by coworkers.
Snowden claims that he repeatedly reported what he considered to be inappropriate use of data collection to no fewer than 10 officials with proper clearance before going public. In an interview with NBC News, Snowden claims he was told to keep quiet about possibly illegal programs. Following the NBC News interview, the CIA downplayed Snowden’s work, describing him as a “low-level analyst.” He also claims that he initially planned to leak the information earlier, but held back to see if President Barack Obama would make any reforms or changes to the program. He made the final decision to leak when he saw that no such reforms were forthcoming.
Snowden entrusted independent journalist Glenn Greenwald to facilitate the leak while reporting for The Guardian. Greenwald championed Snowden’s efforts to expose the NSA, eventually becoming editor of The Intercept, which began as a platform to report on Snowden’s released documents. Together, they worked closely with director Laura Poitras, whose documentary about Snowden, Citizenfour, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2015 Oscars. Snowden was attracted to both of them due to a Salon article Greenwald wrote about Poitras, who had become a target of the government due to her controversial films.
Since Snowden began leaking information while still under the employ of the NSA, he demanded maddeningly secure channels to leak the information. He claims that he combs through every document that he releases to ensure that it is relevant to his mission of exposing government spying, to protect agents in the field as well as their assets, and to not reveal impertinent information, even when it might be significant news. (Despite his efforts, an intelligence operation within al-Qaeda was exposed due to an improperly redacted document given to the New York Times. It has also been reported by the Sunday Times that due to Russian and Chinese decryption of the Snowden files, operations were forced to change in the field.)
No one knows precisely how much Snowden leaked, but we know that it’s a lot – and it’s believed that only one percent of all documents have been leaked. Australian officials put the number at as many as 20,000 Australian documents. British officials estimate 58,000. The original NSA estimate was between 50,000 and 200,000, but it is now believed that Snowden leaked much, much more – the current Department of Defense estimate is 1.7 million. This includes over 160,000 intercepted emails and text messages, some of which are hundreds of pages long, as well as nearly 8,000 documents taken from 11,000 different online accounts.
It is suspected that further leaks are on the way. The Australian government believes that the worst is yet to come.
What Snowden’s NSA Leak Revealed
Again, no one knows for sure what’s in all of the leaked documents, particularly given that a very small amount of what he took from the NSA has actually been leaked to the public. But some of what we do know – which the intelligence community believes is not the most damning information that Snowden has – is chilling.
The PRISM program was the first thing revealed. Basically, with a court order, but without any notification to the person being spied on, the government can read your emails and other electronic communications. There were also leaked details about an NSA call database, as well as a massive British government surveillance program called Boundless Informant. XKeyscore is a wiretapping program that allows any target to be surveilled with only a personal email needed to conduct the surveillance, which would allow access to virtually everything done on the Internet. Snowden likewise revealed that the government was surveilling millions of American citizens, including everything from their instant messages to where they are based on the location of their mobile phone.
The leak also discovered that the NSA:
- Collects data on every website you visit and every Internet search you make.
- Collaborates with big telecommunications companies to track who you talk to and for how long.
- Deliberately develops flawed encryption to spy on sensitive communications.
- Hacks the SIM card on your phone.
- Uses the Five Eyes Alliance to get other countries to spy on you because they’re legally prohibited from doing so themselves.
- And, of course, lies to Congress about the whole thing so that there’s no oversight by your elected officials.
The CIA, the NSA and the GCHQ used such unlikely platforms as XBox Live, Second Life and World of Warcraft to both surveil Americans and also to find informants. The NSA collected information about the séxual proclivities of people it considered radicalizing forces in the world with an eye toward using it to discredit them in the future. Among the targets of the massive intelligence-gathering effort was the largest Brazillian oil company – hardly a threat to national security. Other targets included UNICEF, Medicins des Monde, European Commissioner Joaquin Almunia, the Prime Minister of Israel, and Angela Merkel, among 35 other heads of state allied with the United States.
Totally unrelated to any kind of security of anti-terrorism efforts, the NSA used programs to spy on their own love interests, a practice so common that they named it: “LOVEINT.”
Snowden has said that his death or capture would not halt the release of further information, implying that there is some kind of “kill switch” in place that will keep the information flowing even if he is not able to personally release it.
Finding Asylum in Russia & An Uncertain Future
Snowden left Hawaii, where he was stationed, under the pretext of receiving treatment for epilepsy on the mainland. Instead, he went to Hong Kong and from there to Russia. His final destination was originally meant to be Ecuador by way of Havana, however, he was not able to board his flight to Cuba. He claims that the United States government wanted to keep him in Russia in an attempt to smear him as a Russian spy.
Snowden remains in Russia, but has not formally been granted permanent asylum, only temporary asylum which continues to be extended. He has sought asylum in 21 different countries, all of which were denied. He alleges American interference in his quest for asylum. In Moscow, Snowden makes most of his living off of speaking fees, and lives largely at the pleasure of Vladimir Putin’s government. One need only look to Julian Assange to see how precarious his position is.
While Snowden remains a controversial figure, we believe him to be a hero. All signs point to him having gone through as many official channels for redress before turning to the only one that he had left – direct communication with the American public through sympathetic journalists. His appeals to the American public have largely gone unheeded.
NSA Director General Keith B. Alexander and CIA Director General James Clapper both lied under oath to Congress about the extent of domestic surveillance. Not only were they not prosecuted, but they have also been handsomely rewarded for their efforts with speaking fees far in excess of what Snowden earns for teaching the public about privacy, cryptography and government snooping.