This morning, NBC News reported that Edward Snowden used his administrative access to enter the accounts of other NSA employees with higher level classification with the intent to take information. That should once and for all settle the fact that Edward Snowden engaged in espionage and was not merely acting as a whistle blower.
The NSA has as many as 40,000 employees. According to one intelligence official, the NSA is restricting its research to a much smaller group of individuals with access to sensitive documents. Investigators are looking for discrepancies between the real world actions of an NSA employee and the online activities linked to that person’s computer user profile. For example, if an employee was on vacation while the on-line version of the employee was downloading a classified document, it might indicate that someone assumed the employee’s identity.
The NSA has already identified several instances where Snowden borrowed someone else’s user profile to access documents, said the official.
Each user profile on NSAnet includes a level of security clearance that determines what files the user can access. Like most NSA employees and contractors, Snowden had a “top secret” security clearance, meaning that under his own user profile he could access many classified documents. But some higher level NSA officials have higher levels of clearance that give them access to the most sensitive documents.
As a system administrator, according to intelligence officials, Snowden had the ability to create and modify user profiles for employees and contractors. He also had the ability to access NSAnet using those user profiles, meaning he could impersonate other users in order to access files. He borrowed the identities of users with higher level security clearances to grab sensitive documents.
Once Snowden had collected documents, his job description also gave him a right forbidden to other NSA employees- the right to download files from his computer to an external storage device. Snowden downloaded a reported 20,000 documents onto thumb drives before leaving Hawaii for Hong Kong on May 20.
Let’s break this down. He wasn’t merely seeking those documents within his own compartment. He was actively looking to exploit his sysadmin privileges and access other user accounts and their clearances to gain access to documents above his own clearance level. The NSA is in the process of figuring out whose accounts Snowden accessed and what documents were taken.
NBC News tap dances around the fact that borrowing the accounts and access privileges of other users is a huge issue. That indicates Snowden’s intent to do more than merely blow the whistle based on the documents he had access to. He wanted to seriously damage the NSA’s operations. Why else search through accounts of those in higher classification levels for documents?
It sounds like he was on a fishing expedition with the intent to find incriminating information and if he couldn’t find it with his own clearance level, he was going to use his sysadmin privileges to access accounts that might have information that could damage NSA operations by exposing them to public scrutiny.
At some point, investigators or even the journalists reporting this, should be able to tell people whether the document that Snowden provided them was from those within his own clearance level and those that were pilfered from other accounts.
Even if you want to claim he’s a whistleblower on documents that he had the clearance to view (and I’m going to sidestep the illegality of releasing those documents for the moment because he’s still violating the Espionage Act), you’re going to have a much harder time making the case on actively engaging in criminal acts to access the accounts of other users that had higher classification levels with the intent and purpose to take those documents.
Moreover, this is a further distinguishing feature when compared to Daniel Ellsberg (a Greenwald favorite tactic). Ellsberg released the RAND Corp study to the NYT, that was within his own classification level and actual personal knowledge - either from working on the documents directly or being directly involved in the project. The document/project he was working on was the Pentagon Papers. His case became synonymous with whistleblower for exposing that the Pentagon and Johnson Administration knew that the Vietnam war was a losing proposition.
Snowden? He purposefully bypassed security, exploited sysadmin privileges, and sought out documents above his classification level — all with the intent of fleeing the country.
The kinds of documents being released (including the Black Budget) are meant to undermine the ability of the NSA to carry out its operations. It’s meant to put a strain on US relations with allies, and give enemies, potential targets, and terrorists a heads’ up on tactics and measures to track down and maintain surveillance on operations that could threaten US national security.
Snowden ≠ Ellsberg. This is proof.