Edward Snowden Planned NSA Leaks for Years

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Photo: Courtesy of Wired

After months of virtual appearances at TED conferences and SXSW, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden finally sat down for a print media profile. The honor went to Wired's Jim Bamford, who met with Snowden three times over the course of several weeks in Moscow.

Bamford, an NSA specialist and former employee of the agency himself, seems like the perfect choice for a covert interview with the man on the run. He seems as up to date as Snowden on government avoidance tactics, according to his description of their first meeting:

Snowden is careful about what's known in the intelligence world as operational security. As we sit down, he removes the battery from his cell phone. I left my iPhone back at my hotel. Snowden's handlers repeatedly warned me that, even switched off, a cell phone can easily be turned into an NSA microphone. 

Much of the piece is admiring — Bamford himself admits to feeling a certain "kinship" with Snowden. There aren't many hyper-revealing bits about his personal life, much of which has been relentlessly covered by the media, and the new revelations that do occur are damning instances of U.S. government overreach. (For instance, the government is responsible for bringing down Syria's internet in 2012. Oops.)

Yet despite the sympathies, Bamford asks tough questions. In one section, Bamford wonders whether all of the recent revelations about NSA programs really originate with Snowden. Using a "sophisticated digital search tool," Bamford combs though Snowden's documents and finds that he is unable to trace all the revelations of the past year to his files. A telling sentence informs us that, "Snowden himself adamantly refuses to address this possibility on the record." In another, journalist Laura Poitras's attorney answers a similar query: "We are sorry but Laura is not going to answer your question." 

Another telling passage explores when, exactly, Snowden began to consider leaking government secrets. Bamford suggests that it was before President Barack Obama took office, but that Snowden held off in hopes that something would change under the new administration. When it didn't, Snowden moved up the ranks in various organizations, collecting increased security clearances and, with them, information:

There was one key area that remained out of his reach: the NSA's aggressive cyberwarfare activity around the world. To get access to that last cache of secrets, Snowden landed a job as an infrastructure analyst with another giant NSA contractor, Booz Allen. The role gave him rare dual-hat authority covering both domestic and foreign intercept capabilities—allowing him to trace domestic cyberattacks back to their country of origin. In his new job, Snowden became immersed in the highly secret world of planting malware into systems around the world and stealing gigabytes of foreign secrets. At the same time, he was also able to confirm, he says, that vast amounts of US communications “were being intercepted and stored without a warrant, without any requirement for criminal suspicion, probable cause, or individual designation.” He gathered that evidence and secreted it safely away.

It seems that Snowden didn't suddenly abscond with the materials available with to him at that moment, but instead gathered them over years, building his private cache — and presumably, his courage — for the right moment. With his higher and higher levels of clearance, Snowden had access to increasingly reprehensible plans. Eventually, a program that would effectively grant the NSA access to "virtually all private communications coming in from overseas to people in the US" tipped him over the edge.

Now, though Snowden hopes to one day come home to the United States, he isn't hoping for a political fix to privacy concerns:

“We have the means and we have the technology to end mass surveillance without any legislative action at all, without any policy changes.” The answer, [Snowden] says, is robust encryption. “By basically adopting changes like making encryption a universal standard—where all communications are encrypted by default—we can end mass surveillance not just in the United States but around the world.”