As the U.S. government presses Moscow to extradite former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, America’s most wanted leaker has a plan B. The former NSA systems administrator has already given encoded files containing an archive of the secrets he lifted from his old employer to several people. If anything happens to Snowden, the files will be unlocked.
Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who Snowden first contacted in February, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that Snowden “has taken extreme precautions to make sure many different people around the world have these archives to insure the stories will inevitably be published.” Greenwald added that the people in possession of these files “cannot access them yet because they are highly encrypted and they do not have the passwords.” But, Greenwald said, “if anything happens at all to Edward Snowden, he told me he has arranged for them to get access to the full archives.”
The fact that Snowden has made digital copies of the documents he accessed while working at the NSA poses a new challenge to the U.S. intelligence community that has scrambled in recent days to recover them and assess the full damage of the breach. Even if U.S. authorities catch up with Snowden and the four classified laptops the Guardian reported he brought with him to Hong Kong the secrets Snowden hopes to expose will still likely be published.
A former U.S. counterintelligence officer following the Snowden saga closely said his contacts inside the U.S. intelligence community “think Snowden has been planning this for years and has stashed files all over the Internet.” This source added, “At this point there is very little anyone can do about this.”
The arrangement to entrust encrypted archives of his files with others also sheds light on a cryptic statement Snowden made on June 17 during a live chat with The Guardian. In the online session he said, “All I can say right now is the U.S. government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me. Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped.”
Last week NSA Director Keith Alexander told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that Snowden was able to access files inside the NSA by fabricating digital keys that gave him access to areas he was not allowed to visit as a low-level contractor and systems administrator. One of those areas included a site he visited during his training that Alexander later told reporters contained one of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court orders published by The Guardian and The Washington Post earlier this month.
It’s unclear what else is in the Snowden archive. The Guardian and The Washington Post have already published slides from a classified presentation on a program known as Prism that gives the NSA access to data on non-U.S. persons from Internet companies like Google and Facebook. The newspapers have also published the “minimization procedures” approved by Attorney General Eric Holder to make sure this collection does not include U.S. persons without a warrant and a top-secret presidential directive approving offensive cyber operations.
Greenwald said that he himself has thousands of documents from Snowden that he is continuing to examine. That figure is considerably higher than the 200 documents that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee, said over the weekend that she was told Snowden possessed.
“I don’t know for sure whether [Snowden] has more documents than the ones he has given me,” Greenwald said. “I believe he does. He was clear he did not want to give to journalists things he did not think should be published.”
In addition to providing documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post, Snowden has also given interviews to the South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, which reported that Snowden has disclosed the Internet Protocol addresses for computers in China and Hong Kong that the NSA monitored. That paper also printed a story claiming the NSA collected the text-message data for Hong Kong residents based on a June 12 interview Snowden gave the paper.
“He was not trying to harm the U.S. government; he was trying to shine light on it.”
Greenwald said he would not have published some of the stories that ran in the South China Morning Post. “Whether I would have disclosed the specific IP addresses in China and Hong Kong the NSA is hacking, I don’t think I would have,” Greenwald said. “What motivated that leak though was a need to ingratiate himself to the people of Hong Kong and China.”
However, Greenwald said that in his dealings with Snowden the 30-year-old systems administrator was adamant that he and his newspaper go through the document and only publish what served the public’s right to know. “Snowden himself was vehement from the start that we do engage in that journalistic process and we not gratuitously publish things,” Greenwald said. “I do know he was vehement about that. He was not trying to harm the U.S. government; he was trying to shine light on it.”
Greenwald said Snowden for example did not wish to publicize information that gave the technical specifications or blueprints for how the NSA constructed its eavesdropping network. “He is worried that would enable other states to enhance their security systems and monitor their own citizens.” Greenwald also said Snowden did not wish to repeat the kinds of disclosures made famous a generation ago by former CIA spy, Philip Agee—who published information after defecting to Cuba that outed undercover CIA officers. “He was very insistent he does not want to publish documents to harm individuals or blow anyone’s undercover status,” Greenwald said. He added that Snowden told him, “Leaking CIA documents can actually harm people, whereas leaking NSA documents can harm systems.”
Greenwald also said his newspaper had no plans to publish the technical specifications of NSA systems. “I do not want to help other states get better at surveillance,” Greenwald said. He added, “We won’t publish things that might ruin ongoing operations from the U.S. government that very few people would object to the United States doing.”
In this sense Greenwald is applying a more traditional journalistic approach to publishing classified information than WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that published hundreds of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables and intelligence reports from Afghanistan and Iraq—initially without removing the names of individuals who were placed at risk after their interactions with U.S. officials in dangerous places were made public. “I am supportive of WikiLeaks, but I am doing something different,” Greenwald said.
For now, the FBI has taken a keen interest in the leak of FISA court documents. Those documents are some of the most closely guarded secrets in the U.S. intelligence community. As of last week, the FBI was investigating whether Snowden may have obtained those documents from a leak inside the secret FISA court.
Thus far, The Guardian and The Washington Post have only published FISA documents that disclosed the wholesale collection of telephone metadata, but not the authorization to monitor the electronic communications of individuals. Greenwald declined to say whether or not he possessed FISA court warrants authorizing surveillance of a specific individual.
For now, Greenwald said he is taking extra precautions against the prospect that he is a target of U.S. surveillance. He said he began using encrypted email when he began communicating with Snowden in February after Snowden sent him a YouTube video walking him through the procedure to encrypt his email.
“When I was in Hong Kong, I spoke to my partner in Rio via Skype and told him I would send an electronic encrypted copy of the documents,” Greenwald said. “I did not end up doing it. Two days later his laptop was stolen from our house and nothing else was taken. Nothing like that has happened before. I am not saying it’s connected to this, but obviously the possibility exists.”
When asked if Greenwald believed his computer was being monitored by the U.S. government. “I would be shocked if the U.S. government were not trying to access the information on my computer. I carry my computers and data with me everywhere I go.”