The Cyber Threat: Snowden—Ultimate Insider Threat Missed by NSA Security

How political correctness harms the intelligence community and national security

NSA leaker Edward Snowden speaks via video link / AP
September 20, 2016

Security officials today use the politically correct term "insider threat" to describe what were once called traitors, and no one was more aggressive in pursuing them than counterintelligence types at the National Security Agency.

Thus many intelligence officials saw more than a tinge of irony in NSA contractor Edward Snowden making off with 1.5 million highly classified NSA intelligence documents in May 2013 and handing them over to several anti-American journalists who seemed more interested in inflicting as much damage as possible on America’s premier electronic spying and code-breaking agency than exposing alleged wrongdoing.

Until Snowden, the NSA had a reputation as one of the intelligence organizations most dedicated to protecting secrets. But the case exposed gaping holes at the agency, and a House intelligence report says gaps persist years after Snowden fled the country and holed up in Moscow.

Sure, the super-secret agency whose name itself was once classified had its share of Cold War spies, but nothing quite like Snowden.

One of my first reporting assignments 30 years ago was to cover the espionage trial in Baltimore of NSA analyst Ronald Pelton. Prior to the proceedings, NSA had argued within the government against prosecution in favor of a plea deal. The spooks were worried about the disclosure of secrets and spying methods during the high-profile case.

At trial, NSA technicians for the first time revealed how they secretly recorded Pelton’s conversations using remote electronic equipment that turned slight vibrations on a windowpane in his house into a type of microphone for eavesdropping.

Also at trial, the federal government threatened this reporter and several others with unspecified action if we reported how Pelton had revealed to Moscow a secret underwater eavesdropping program that spied on Soviet military communications in the far east Sea of Okhotsk by tapping undersea cables. The operation, known as Ivy Bells, eventually became public despite the NSA’s attempts to keep it secret.

Security at the NSA’s large campus, visible from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and inside the Army’s Fort Meade, Maryland base, has always been tight. Anyone at the agency who runs afoul of feared security and counterintelligence police quickly can finds themself without a security clearance and assigned to the motor pool. Others have faced what critics describe as unfair scrutiny from NSA psychiatrists whose evaluations have spelled a quick end to intelligence careers. Employment at NSA is all about security clearances. Have one, and you work; lose one or have it suspended for a security infraction, and you might as well seek employment in another field.

Snowden had enough security clearances to get him access to a trove of secrets that he then leaked. For doing so, he has been lionized by many on the political left and a few on the libertarian right as a hero who allegedly exposed illegal electronic spying against Americans. The lionization reached new heights last week with a campaign seeking a presidential pardon and release of a new film by one the left’s chief conspiracy theorists, filmmaker Oliver Stone. The film traces Snowden’s background as a washout from Army Ranger school to first the CIA and then to Booz Allen, an intelligence contractor who assigned him to NSA.

Stone held a Georgetown reception last week at a French restaurant where wine and cocktails were served and a number of officials rubbed shoulders with NSA critics after an exclusive screening of the film.

Once attached to NSA, Snowden worked as a computer administrator and hacked his way through electronic flaws in NSA’s secret computer and information systems to siphon off the documents. The extremely secure networks used for classified information are not accessible from outside secure areas of NSA. But as with all computers, the systems have ports and entryways for loading software that Snowden was able to exploit in pilfering some of the crown jewels of the NSA.

An earlier documentary on Snowden, Citizenfour, featured the renegade contractor in Hong Kong claiming the NSA had engaged in a massive conspiracy to spy on Americans and violate their privacy—charges that were never proven.

What was revealed in NSA documents was not the agency portrayed by Snowden—a rogue elephant trampling the privacy rights of Americans. Instead, agency documents reveal remarkable capabilities for stealing secrets, some of them highly encrypted, and turning them into valuable intelligence for use in dealing with terrorists and enemies like China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran.

Those capabilities are now at risk. The reason is that one of the first rules of effective electronic eavesdropping is that the information gathered is only good as long as the method used to gather it remains a closely guarded secret.

NSA officials are unabashed about the agency’s spying prowess, unlike the politicized CIA under current Director John Brennan. Brennan invoked scorn from agency veterans in February by making the dubious assertion that "we don’t steal secrets." The comment reflected the CIA’s shift away from its traditional role of conducting difficult cloak-and-dagger human spying abroad. According to former officials, the CIA today has lost much of its clandestine operations capabilities, instead embracing the much easier task of targeting and killing terrorists in remote-controlled drone strikes, which has become one of the agency’s primary missions.

By comparison, the NSA’s spying power is formidable, as revealed in documents showing that the agency not only breaks into foreign computers to steal secrets, but breaks into the computers of foreign intelligence services and steals secrets foreign intelligence services are gathering from their own targets. NSA wags code-named the practice "I drink your milkshake," after a quote in the 2007 film There Will Be Blood about oil drillers tapping wells of nearby competitors to secretly siphon off their crude.

Republicans in Congress last week sought to dispel the myth that Snowden is some kind of hero. On Friday, no doubt timed to the release of the Stone film, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released the damning executive summary of its still-secret 36-page review of the case. Its conclusions do not paint Snowden in a favorable light, to say the least.

"First, Snowden caused tremendous damage to national security, and the vast majority of the documents he stole have nothing to do with programs impacting individual privacy interests—they instead pertain to military, defense, and intelligence programs of great interest to America’s adversaries," the report said.

The damage included compromised secrets that protect American troops overseas and bolster defenses against terrorists and states. Foreign states now know how the NSA targets their information and can take steps to counter the agency.

Snowden, who has been under Russian government protection since June 2013, has shared some of the stolen documents with Moscow. According to the House report, a Russian parliamentarian stated in June that Snowden shared intelligence with the Russians.

NSA reviewed all 1.5 million documents Snowden removed and will spend "hundreds of millions of dollars and will eventually spend billions, to attempt to mitigate the damage Snowden caused," the report said.

The House report also sought to counter the notion that Snowden was a whistleblower motivated to expose NSA wrongdoing.

Contrary to Snowden’s claims that he sought to alert the NSA or other officials to his concerns about domestic spying, "the Committee found no evidence that Snowden took any official effort to express concerns about U.S. intelligence activities—legal, moral, or otherwise—to any oversight officials within the U.S. government, despite numerous avenues for him to do so."

The report reveals that Snowden, in the course of stealing documents, obtained login credentials from colleagues through unspecified misleading means. He then used administrator access to search coworkers’ personal drives and removed personal information from thousands of intelligence officials and contractors.

Snowden has not disclosed the details surrounding his flight from Hawaii. The House report notes, however, that he engaged in "a fiery email argument" with an NSA supervisor about how to manage computer updates in June 2012.

"Two weeks later, Snowden began his mass downloads of classified information from NSA networks," the report said, describing Snowden as a "serial exaggerator and fabricator." One action was to doctor his performance evaluations to obtain new positions at NSA. He notified his supervisor in May 2013 that he was taking time off for epilepsy treatment when in fact he was heading to Hong Kong.

Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the House report was its conclusion that, three years after Snowden’s actions, the NSA and intelligence community remain vulnerable to further document thefts.

"More work can and should be done to improve security of the people and computer networks that keep America’s most closely held secrets," the report said, adding that the NSA has not initiated post-Snowden security enhancements.

The problem for NSA and other intelligence agencies is the imposition of liberal-left political correctness policies that prevent questioning the motives of renegade employees like Snowden.

The days of independent counterintelligence units within the intelligence community were ended in the 1970s. Since then, aggressive programs for the security of people and information systems remain off limits by policies that prevent questioning loyalties. Until that changes, expect further cases of betrayal.

The Cyber Threat column is co-published on Flash//CRITIC Cyber Threat News at