The Spectacle Blog

Snowden’s Online Q&A Leaves Many un-Aed Qs

By on 6.17.13 | 4:33PM

Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian has wrapped up an online question-and-answer session with NSA leaker Edward Snowden. He answered questions about his backstory, motivations, contact with the Chinese government (none, he said), and claims of awesome, universal surveillance power as an NSA employee. At times Snowden came across as self-congratulatory, giving cursory answers to serious questions about previous statements, ironically equivocating while accusing NSA officials of doing the same. For example, NYU journalism professor Anthony De Rosa asked, “Can [NSA] analysts listen to content of domestic calls without a warrant?” Snowden responded:

NSA likes to use “domestic” as a weasel word here for a number of reasons. The reality is that due to the FISA Amendments Act and its section 702 authorities, Americans’ communications are collected and viewed on a daily basis on the certification of an analyst rather than a warrant. They excuse this as “incidental” collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications. Even in the event of “warranted” intercept, it’s important to understand the intelligence community doesn’t always deal with what you would consider a ‘real’ warrant like a Police department would have to, the “warrant” is more of a templated form they fill out and send to a reliable judge with a rubber stamp.

Greenwald followed up with a request for clarification: “When you say ‘someone at NSA still has the content of your communications’ – what do you mean? Do you mean they have a record of it, or the actual content?” The response:

Both. If I target for example an email address, for example under FAA 702, and that email address sent something to you, Joe America, the analyst gets it. All of it. IPs, raw data, content, headers, attachments, everything. And it gets saved for a very long time - and can be extended further with waivers rather than warrants.

Snowden was also asked if he stood by the claim that “I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you, or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President if I had a personal email,” and if so, whether he could elaborate:

Yes, I stand by it. US Persons do enjoy limited policy protections (and again, it’s important to understand that policy protection is no protection - policy is a one-way ratchet that only loosens) and one very weak technical protection - a near-the-front-end filter at our ingestion points. The filter is constantly out of date, is set at what is euphemistically referred to as the “widest allowable aperture,” and can be stripped out at any time. Even with the filter, US comms get ingested, and even more so as soon as they leave the border. Your protected communications shouldn’t stop being protected communications just because of the IP they’re tagged with.

More fundamentally, the “US Persons” protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%. Our founders did not write that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.”

John Schindler of the U.S. Naval War College entertained an edifying back-and-forth exchange with me about Snowden’s claims (I highly recommend clicking the link to see our full conversation). The self-described former NSA spook noted that Snowden was only ever a systems administrator at NSA, not an intelligence analyst. Really, his only direct employment by the agency was as a security guard, after which he moved onto the CIA to begin information technology work, as the piece that revealed him to the world explains.

Snowden did subsequently work in NSA facilities for contractors, including Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton, but only as a technician maintaining the security of NSA computer systems. Only an intelligence analyst would have direct access to intelligence materials. In Schindler’s view, Snowden’s statement logically implied that he could hack the NSA system to gain the access of an analyst. It's difficult to explain how else he would have had that access "at his desk."

Unilaterally wiretapping the president would be a separate matter entirely. Schindler said it would be practically difficult for an analyst to wiretap an American citizen without a FISA court order specific to said individual, and took pains to emphasize that doing so would violate numerous agency regulations and U.S. laws. By implication he would be very surprised if such actions were common.

Spencer Ackerman, The Guardian’s national security editor, asked Snowden about the intimations that he may debrief Chinese authorities. Snowden shot back: “Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn’t I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now.” When Ackerman pressed for a flat no answer, Snowden gave him one, saying he would only work with journalists.

But Schindler is not so sure, as explained in his recent blog post on the affair (also worth reading):

Whether Snowden will defect to China remains to be seen. On a basic level, it is Snowden’s word against -- and with -- that of other individuals, including journalists, politicians, and intelligence officials. As a close friend of mine studying international relations in Glasgow observed, “Our trust for Snowden is really just trust at the end of the day. As an actor on the anarchic international stage, he is free to behave as his whim inclines him. We have no way to prove one way or the other.”

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