Saturday, June 22, 2013

Was Snowden Really a Spy?

News broke yesterday that Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, has been indicted under the Espionage Act. Though this is unsurprising, it has provoked some outrage. To some, Snowden is a whistle-blower doing God's work—an insider and true believer who became disenchanted by what he learned of the NSA's abuses and excesses, and felt the only choice was to make them public. Such conduct seems unworthy of criminal prosecution.

As a civil libertarian who's highly skeptical of government power, I am glad that the documents we have were leaked, and look forward to more. But I'm not sure Snowden is really wearing a white hat.

It seems increasingly plausible, in fact, that Snowden wasn't an insider who became disenchanted, but rather an outsider who purposefully infiltrated the NSA with the specific intent to make its secrets public. For example, the Los Angeles Times reports that Snowden has long been critical of the NSA:
A self-taught computer whiz who wanted to travel the world, Snowden seemed a perfect fit for a secretive organization that spies on communications from foreign terrorism suspects.
But in hundreds of online postings dating back a decade, Snowden also denounced "pervasive government secrecy" and criticized America's "unquestioning obedience towards spooky types."
At least online, Snowden seemed sardonic, affably geeky and supremely self-assured. In 2006, someone posted to Ars Technica, a website popular with technophiles, about an odd clicking in an Xbox video game console. A response came from "TheTrueHOOHA," Snowden's pen name: "NSA's new surveillance program. That's the sound of freedom, citizen!"
It is strange that a person who made these comments would be granted a top-secret security clearance and allowed access to the country's most secret double-secrets, unless it was all just a clever cover story (which I doubt). On the other hand, it makes me feel a bit safer that the NSA's all-seeing surveillance wasn't all-seeing enough to know they had given an obvious mole super-user access to their servers.

But it also provides a possible answer to another nagging question: why was a lowly nerd like Snowden given access to these super-secret documents? One possibility is that he actually wasn't given access to these documents, but took it. In other words, he used his admin privileges to probe the NSA's databases and went looking where he shouldn't have, all with the specific intent of exposing anything he found and considered objectionable.

Obviously, this is rank speculation on my part. ("Rank Speculation" would be a great sub-title for this blog, after all.) But if it's true that Snowden was on a mission to divulge, and that he went looking for documents he wasn't supposed to look at, it's harder to be outraged at the decision to prosecute him—even if you think (as I do) that his actions ultimately further the public interest.

UPDATE (6/24/2013):

According to the South China Morning Post, Snowden now admits that he took the Booz Hamilton job with the specific intent to gather and divulge the NSA's secrets:
"My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked," he told the Post on June 12. "That is why I accepted that position about three months ago."

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