Snowden speaks, raises more questions than answers

If Snowden and Greenwald prove the NSA has direct access to citizens’ communications, they deserve credit for exposing that. For now they have only been able to raise more questions than answers

Edward Snowden: a "weird guy"?
Alex Wickham, UK Politics Editor
On 18 June 2013 07:11

Yesterday evening Edward Snowden logged on to his spook-proof laptop, made sure the pillows lining the door of his Hong Kong safehouse were securely in place, and answered questions on the Guardian website. The Q&A session was carefully staged; like a press conference for a Soviet gymnast, one perhaps slightly unkind critic observed.

The key question remains unchanged and unanswered: can Snowden and Glenn Greenwald stand up their claim that the National Security Agency has “direct access” to the communications of US citizens. In an exchange with Greenwald earlier this week he insisted to me that the proof was coming. My personal position has been and still is: if he can produce the evidence then fair play to him.

Let us look at Snowden’s answer to the “direct access” question yesterday:

“More detail on how direct NSA's accesses are is coming, but in general, the reality is this: if an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc analyst has access to query raw SIGINT databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want. Phone number, email, user id, cell phone handset id (IMEI), and so on - it's all the same. The restrictions against this are policy-based, not technically-based, and can change at any time. Additionally, audits are cursory, incomplete, and easily fooled by fake justifications. For at least GCHQ, the number of audited queries is only 5% of those performed.”

First, the same repeated assurance that more detail is coming. When? We are given no clue. Why the delay? Nothing.

Next, a markedly vague counterfactual centering on “if” NSA analysts have access to raw databases, and a complex technical description of the process involved. If he was confident in his initial claim that analysts have “direct access” to servers, why the caution?

He talks about “how direct NSA’s accesses are”. This is like asking how pregnant someone is. Surely either they are direct – as in immediately accessible without any other check or balance – or they aren’t? Why couldn’t he give a straight answer? It sounds – and I stress sounds – like he is preparing the ground for a backtrack.

This may be explained in part by his answer to whether analysts can access communications without a warrant:

“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.”

Snowden effectively confirms that wiretapping US citizens without a warrant is not policy, but merely “incidental”, an important word which he fails to elaborate on. Again, we await the evidence. He then concedes analysts do ask for warrants for intercepts, presenting a pretty weak argument for why this isn’t a warrant as you or I know it. Whatever it is, that certainly doesn't constitute “direct access”.

If it is true that analysts can access all communications directly without the consent of a judge as he claims, why are other intercepts “warranted”? Why does he feel the need to downplay the validity of the warrant? Again, it looks as if he is preparing to play down his original claims.

Third, Snowden reiterated his insistence that he had only leaked information that was in the public interest, for noble reasons:

“I did not reveal any US operations against legitimate military targets. I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses because it is dangerous”.

That is a very carefully worded answer. No mention of yesterday’s Guardian story revealing details of NSA and GCHQ operations against Russian diplomats, perhaps not a military target but certainly a legitimate one. Revelations concerning US citizens are one thing, leaking classified operational details on rival powers is quite different.

Notice how Greenwald’s byline was not on this story. When I asked him if he approved of the publication of that particular leak his response was telling: “I don't own or edit or control the Guardian. I'm responsible for what I write”. That's a no, then. Greenwald and the Guardian would be crazy if they did not have fears Snowden’s motives aren’t quite as honest as they seem.

It is also noteworthy that neither Greenwald nor Snowdon have sought to address the fact they were working together in February, before he started working for Booz Allen and the NSA. This question was asked several times by readers, but for some strange reason it wasn’t answered.

Other than these technical points there is one other significant thing that came across yesterday, something that wasn’t so obvious in his interview released last week. It's a matter of perception, but Snowden seems a pretty weird guy. “All I can say right now is the US government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me,” he types grandiosely. “Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped”. I mean, come on.

This is a man who has thrown away his life, a man whose story is riddled with holes, a man who speaks as if he is in a film. As I have maintained all along, if Snowden and Greenwald have evidence that the NSA has direct access to US citizens’ communications, they deserve credit for exposing that. It is increasingly worrying that in the meantime they have only been able to raise more questions than they have answers.

Alex Wickham is the UK Political Correspondent for The Commentator. He tweets at @WikiGuido

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