Above image by Gil C / Shutterstock.com
A long-time, trusted employee of the National Security Agency—one of the rare geeky technocrats allowed a say among a group of otherwise cynical, paranoid conservatives—was forced to resign from the agency after confessing to federal investigators that he happily gave former NSA analyst Edward Snowden a digital key which allowed him to gain instantaneous access and the ability to copy and transport classified materials, the NSA told Congress on Friday, February 14, 2014. This revelation goes a long way toward helping mystified investigators come up with the modus operandi used by the whistle-blower Snowden, who has insisted for months that he did not steal any passwords.
The unnamed civilian employee resigned last month after his security clearance was revoked, according to a letter that NSA legislative director Ethan L. Bauman sent this week to the House Judiciary Committee. Questions as to why this high-placed bureaucrat has and probably will remain unnamed are the hottest gossip of the moment in the corridors of power. Speculation in Crain’s Chicago Business says that in spite of his catastrophic mistake this particular technocrat is a master recruiter of talent at M.I.T.* and a trusted advisor to the joint chiefs of staff, and means that there’s a possibility that this scandal still has legs. Additionally, a ‘military employee’ and a ‘private contractor’ have also lost their access to NSA data as part of the continuing investigation by the FBI. Yet much of the speculation also insists that these punishments are temporary because the input of these employees is so crucial to the national interest and they’ll ultimately be rehired.
Bauman’s memo, dated February 10, provides the first details about what authorities said they have learned about how Snowden retrieved so many classified documents before passing them to news organizations. Yet Snowden has always denied stealing any computer passwords or having tricked co-workers into giving him their passwords. The NSA letter, however, gives pretty clear anecdotal evidence that Snowden tricked at least one co-worker, copying the employee’s password without his knowledge. Security officials refuse, however, to itemize just how many files Snowden took before he fled the U.S.
The unnamed NSA worker said he told FBI investigators last June that he allowed Snowden free access to an encrypted digital key known as a Public Key Infrastructure certificate. Able to access classified information on NSANet, the agency’s computer network, Snowden uploaded and downloaded everything available throughout the NSA’s classified databanks, according to the A.P. The same memo also noted that Snowden had been denied access to the network scores of times previous to gaining possession of the key. Once the colleague entered his secure PKI password, Snowden “was able to capture the password, allowing him even greater access to classified information.”
Last month, Snowden participated in a public question-and-answer session on the Free Snowden website. “I never stole any passwords, nor did I trick an army of co-workers,” he insisted. The head of U.S. spying programs, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, told senators this week that Snowden’s access to so many classified files has accelerated plans to tighten clearance procedures and monitoring of government computers. The Snowden breach was a “perfect storm, “ he claimed, as Snowden was a systems administrator and a highly skilled and technically skilled IT professional. “He knew exactly what he was doing. He was pretty skilled at staying below the radar, so what he was doing wasn’t visible.” Clapper acknowledged that the Hawaii NSA station where Snowden worked did not have the same level of security that exists at the agency’s Fort Meade, Md., headquarters.
Although everyone in Washington, D.C. is trying desperately to exercise viable damage control, there seems to be more in reading between the lines here than just reading tealeaves. Slowly but surely, the distended fragments of a jigsaw puzzle seem to be coming together like something spy-catcher George Smiley might find in a John Le Carré novel. Edward Snowden looks more and more like a carefully trained mole planted into the NSA by an enemy government. Finding out just who this enemy is will take patience and resilience.
*Massachussetts Institute of Technology