WASHINGTON, May 15, 2015 — Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor behind the massive leak of classified U.S. intelligence documents, continues to dominate headlines for his exposé of the NSA’s domestic surveillance program.
Since the Snowden disclosures first hit the press last year, the media have depicted Snowden as a heroic whistleblower. Recent revelations suggest a different storyline.
Investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein published an article in The Wall Street Journal proposing that Edward Snowden designed the “whistleblower” story himself as a cover for a foreign espionage operation.
According to Epstein, the whistleblowing narrative does not correlate with the nature of the classified documents and the dates on which they were taken. Of the classified information leaked by Snowden, only a handful of secrets pertained to domestic surveillance; the rest of the data appears to be fodder for an espionage operation.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, testified to the House Armed Services Committee on March 13, 2014, “the vast majority of the documents that Snowden exfiltrated from our highest levels of security had nothing to do with government oversight of domestic activities.”
Epstein reports that a former member of President Obama’s Cabinet told him off the record that Snowden’s heist of intelligence data could only be explained as a Russian, Chinese, or Sino-Russian espionage operation.
“A former member of President Obama’s cabinet went even further, suggesting to me off the record in March this year that there are only three possible explanations for the Snowden heist: 1) It was a Russian espionage operation; 2) It was a Chinese espionage operation, or 3) It was a joint Sino-Russian operation,” reports Epstein.
In an interview with The Australian Financial Review, General Keith Alexander, former head of the NSA, called Snowden a “Russian puppet” responsible for the most damaging security breach in history. In a comment to the Financial Review, he said, “only a fraction of the leaks had anything to do with Americans’ civil liberties” and he believes “Russian intelligence is now ‘driving’ Mr. Snowden.”
While current NSA director Admiral Mike Rogers refrained from commenting on the possibility of Snowden’s involvement in an espionage operation with China or Russia, he strongly condemned Snowden for disclosing classified information that hardly pertained to NSA eavesdropping.
“Mr. Snowden stole from the United States government and national security a large amount of very classified information, a small portion of which is germane to his apparent central argument regarding NSA and privacy issues. The great majority of which has zero to do with those viewpoints,” Rogers said.
When Snowden breached security at the Signals Intelligence Center in Hawaii in mid-April 2013, he used stolen or forged passwords to break into two dozen secret compartments and used a web crawler program to “scrape” specific compartments for particular information. The vast majority of the information taken relates to U.S. military and intelligence capabilities, not domestic surveillance.
Rick Ledgett, the NSA executive who headed the NSA’s damage-assessment task force, said that the information collected by Snowden contains “the keys to the kingdom.” On the December 13, 2013 edition of “60 Minutes” Ledgett explained that this information provides “adversaries with a road map of what we know, what we don’t know.”
Following the theft of classified data in Hawaii, Snowden first fled to Hong Kong. After dismissal, he accepted an offer of asylum in Russia where he resides today at an undisclosed location.
While Snowden insists that he took his position at Booz Allen Hamilton with the intention of revealing the NSA’s domestic surveillance program, the timeline of events suggest otherwise. Snowden took the position at Booz Allen Hamilton in March 2013.
The document he leaked authorizing the NSA’s controversial domestic surveillance program resulted from a Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FISA) court order requiring Verizon to release metadata on U.S. phone calls for 90 days. FISA issued the order on April 26, 2013. When Snowden joined Booz Allen Hamilton in March, there is no way his whistleblowing plan could have included the release of a document through a court order issued over a month later.
Epstein’s argument, however, is not airtight. The FISA court order is not the first one ever issued to a phone company. A similar court order was issued in 2011.
Spy or not, to blindly promulgate the “whistleblower” narrative carefully crafted by Snowden himself is at least naïve. Infatuation with the tale of the whistleblower obfuscates the investigation into a leak of classified information that will continue to have severe ramifications for U.S. national security.
The bottom line is that the Snowden disclosures were overwhelmingly of military and intelligence value and had little to do with privacy.
“In short, the media and Mr. Snowden’s admirers have only his word as to what went on,” explains Epstein. “His detractors are the people who know enough about what happened to conclude that far from being a whistleblower, Mr. Snowden was a participant in an espionage operation and most likely steered from the beginning toward his massive theft, whether he knew this at first or not.”
Currently, the information backing the federal government’s complaints against Snowden are sealed and have been since June 2013. Until the evidence is unsealed, we have only Snowden’s word. Most likely, the whistleblower narrative will continue to dominate headlines.
Meanwhile, it is past time for the real possibility of an alternate storyline to start making the headlines.