When VERAX, “truth-teller” in Latin, approached BRASSBANNER the reporter on May 16 the former did not show his hand right away, perhaps because the earth-shaking magnitude of the “truth” he had to share may have evoked a sense of utter disbelief.
Instead, Edward Snowden (29) — the former CIA technical assistant and Booz Allen Hamilton contractor working for the U.S National Security Agency — drip-fed classified data to The Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman over a series of communications, in what has since been described as “one of the biggest leaks in the history of U.S. intelligence”.
His revelations over the course of last week, which coincided with the trial of Bradley Manning, the other high-profile whistleblower in recent history, have shaken the ground beneath the U.S. intelligence establishment and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, “For me, it is literally... gut-wrenching to see this happen because of the huge, grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities.”
However, Mr. Clapper, President Barack Obama and some members of the U.S. Congress have, explicitly or implicitly, defended the legality of the mega-scale snooping that the federal government has engaged in, of the servers of major Internet companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple; and also telecom operators such as Verizon; and credit card companies.
Yet, in passing on top-secret documents to The Washington Post and the U.K.’s The Guardian newspapers, Mr. Snowden revealed his fear of what he described as the routine nature of extra-judicial “killing” that intelligence agents engage in when dealing with such cases.
“I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end,” Mr. Snowden said to Mr. Gellman, prior to their first direct contact, additionally warning that journalists who pursued this story were at risk until they published and the U.S. intelligence community “will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure and make them the sole owner of this information”.
When Mr. Snowden sought to protect himself by asking Mr. Gellman for a guarantee that his newspaper would publish within 72 hours the full text of a PowerPoint presentation describing PRISM, a classified surveillance programme for gathering intelligence from the web, Mr. Gellman backed off. He answered that The Post would not offer any guarantee about what it published or when, but nevertheless broke the story two weeks later, last Thursday.
Tensions crept into the conversation at other points in their communications too, Mr. Gellman revealed. Before the publication of the story, Mr. Gellman made contact with Mr. Snowden “on a new channel”. Mr. Snowden responded in alarm, “Do I know you?” When Mr. Gellman botched the entry of a digital fingerprint to verify his identity, Mr. Snowden almost signed off, saying “That is not at all the right fingerprint... You’re getting MITM’d [Man in the Middle, a standard NSA technique to bypass encryption].”
Though Mr. Snowden relocated to Hong Kong, he has left behind a nation that may be in need of soul searching on how it balances civil liberties and Internet privacy with authorities’ need for effective counterterrorism surveillance.
Call for review
Underscoring this need, some U.S. lawmakers have reportedly called for a review of the government’s practice of monitoring phone and Internet activities, and Democratic Senator and Intelligence Committee member Mark Udall said he thought “another look at the 2001 U.S.A Patriot Act was warranted... [and] we ought to put some limits on the amount of data that the NSA is collecting”.