U.S. government targets ex-contractor over NSA leaks

Edward Snowden was a system administrator with a security clearance at Booz Allen Hamilton. Now he's on the run from the world's most powerful intelligence agency.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read

Participants in a small pro-Edward Snowden rally in New York City yesterday.
Participants in a small pro-Edward Snowden rally in New York City yesterday. Getty Images

Edward Snowden, the 29-year old government contractor who took credit for disclosing a top-secret National Security Agency document, has become the target of condemnation by U.S. politicians and a leak investigation by federal police.

A day after The Guardian published a video featuring Snowden being interviewed in a Hong Kong hotel room and alleging NSA illegalities, the former Booz Allen Hamilton employee has emerged as probably an even more polarizing figure than Bradley Manning.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence committee, said Monday that Snowden was guilty of "an act of treason." A Fox News analyst called for Snowden's execution, and the New York Times confirmed that the Justice Department has begun the process of filing criminal charges.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden The Guardian

But as the ongoing saga of WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange demonstrates -- he's still holed up in Ecuador's London embassy in an attempt to avoid extradition -- jurisdictional arbitrage can make it difficult for national governments to enforce their will. Snowden has checked out of Hong Kong's Mira Hotel, and it's not clear where he is now. Iceland is one possibility.

Meanwhile, Washington officialdom was left reeling at the revelation that a low-level contractor living in Hawaii, with limited formal schooling and less than three months on the job, was able to extract such sensitive NSA secrets. The NSA's Associate Directorate for Security and Counterintelligence, also known as the "Q Group," reportedly was on Snowden's trail around the same time that last week's leaks appeared. The Washington Post reported that only 30 or 40 people at the NSA should have had access to one of the leaked documents.

Just as WikiLeaks faced a harsh political backlash in 2010, Snowden is facing one today. John Yoo, a Justice Department official in the Bush administration, wrote that "Snowden should go to jail, as quickly and for as long as possible." A CNN anchor wondered whether Snowden should be viewed as "an enemy of the state."

Rep. Peter King, the New York Republican who heads the House Homeland Security committee, said: "I consider him right now to be a defector." Making matters worse, from the perspective of the national security apparatus, is that Snowden leaked additional documents that have not yet become public, meaning more potentially embarrassing stories are likely to appear.

But an unofficial Fox News poll, which is not statistically valid, found that 68 percent of respondents called Snowden a "hero." A petition to Obama to pardon Snowden, even though he has not yet been publicly charged with a crime, has already attracted over 41,000 signatures. A small pro-Snowden rally coalesced in New York City yesterday, and a fundraising effort is under way. (Snowden is a supporter of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a fan of former presidential candidate Ron Paul, and a firearms enthusiast.)

Both The Guardian and the Washington Post reported last week on leaked documents dealing with NSA surveillance. One set of documents, a secret Patriot Act order sent to Verizon for all its customers' phone records, has been confirmed as real and is arguably illegal.

But a set of PRISM Powerpoint slides dealing with NSA acquiring information from Internet companies, as CNET reported last week, appears to have been misinterpreted. A Washington Post editorial concluded that there is "no indication" that NSA oversight is lacking, "nor is there any evidence that the authorities were abused or that the privacy of any American was illegally or improperly invaded."

A Rasmussen Reports poll found that, despite President Obama's protestations last Friday to the contrary, 68 percent of Americans believe the NSA is likely listening to their conversations.

Thomas Drake, an ex-NSA employee turned whistleblower, said, even before Snowden came forward, that the government "will burn with a decided white hot intensity of revenge and retaliation and start threatening" whoever leaked the documents.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told NBC News that Snowden's leak was an "egregious violation of a sacred trust." He added:

There are legitimate outlets for anyone within the intelligence community who feels that some law is being -- violated for reporting fraud, waste, and abuse. And there are legitimate mechanisms for reporting that both within the executive and of the Congress, without damaging national security. And for whatever reason, the person or persons doing this chose not to use those legitimate outlets.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed that will appear in Tuesday's newspaper, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said the NSA's actions in vacuuming up Verizon customer records "violate the Fourth Amendment." He added: "What is objectionable is a system in which government has unlimited and privileged access to the details of our private affairs, and citizens are simply supposed to trust that there won't be any abuse of power." European leaders, too, are hardly pleased.

Also Monday, more information emerged about Snowden's girlfriend, who has been identified as dancer Lindsay Mills and who stayed behind in Hawaii.

In a blog post on Monday titled "Adrift," Mills wrote: "I'll be refraining from blog posts for awhile... My world has opened and closed all at once. Leaving me lost at sea without a compass." She previously called her boyfriend "E," my "man of mystery."