NSA ignored accusatory report in personnel file

Whether or not whistleblower Edward Snowden's decision to reveal details of the U.S. National Security Agency's (NSA) spying on everyday Americans' digital lives was justifiable, it's undeniable that the leak has been a colossal source of embarassment and controversy for the NSA, the U.S. intelligence community, and the U.S. federal government as a whole.  In that regard many at the NSA are asking themselves -- "Could we have done to stop the leak?"

I. Edward Snowden's Troubles With the CIA

Well the answer, according to a new report in The New York Times, is that they apparently could have -- and likely quite easily.

The story began in 2006 when Mr. Snowden -- regarded by coworkers as a brilliant IT mind -- was hired by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  By 2008, despite having no technical credentials, he had advanced in his new position earning a "top-secret" security clearance and being stationed at a comfortable U.S. Department of State-affiliated CIA post in Geneva.  But things would soon sour between Mr. Snowden and his government employers

Edward Snowden
Former CIA technician and third-party NSA contractor Ed. Snowden walked away from a posh contracting desk job spying on Americans to blow the whistle on NSA waste and overreaches. [Image Source: AP]
The report alleges that in 2009 documents in Edward Snowden's personnel file reveal that his supervisor began to notice a troubling trend in his behavior.  

The NYT report states:

[I]n 2009, his supervisor wrote a derogatory report in his personnel file, noting a distinct change in the young man’s behavior and work habits...

While it is unclear what exactly the supervisor’s negative report said, it coincides with a period of Mr. Snowden's life in 2009 when he was a prolific online commenter on government and security issues, complained about civil surveillance and, according to a friend, was suffering "a crisis of conscience."

Mr. Snowden has indicated that he began his intelligence career blissfully naive of the scope of which the government spies on Americans, regularly violating the law and agencies own official policies.  

II. From "Hope to Nope"  

While he did not officially support the man who would become the 44th President of the United States with his vote, he felt Barack Obama would mark a major policy shift versus President George W. Bush.  In his June 2013 interview with The Guardian -- the British newspaper who Mr. Snowden primarily has leaked to -- explains:

You see things that may be disturbing. When you see everything you realize that some of these things are abusive. The awareness of wrong-doing builds up. There was not one morning when I woke up [and decided this is it]. It was a natural process.

A lot of people in 2008 voted for Obama. I did not vote for him. I voted for a third party. But I believed in Obama's promises. I was going to disclose it [but waited because of his election]. He continued with the policies of his predecessor.

 Obama and Bush
Presidents Obama wasn't the "change" Mr. Snowden had hoped he'd be. [Image Source: AP]

After seeing little shift in spying policy -- including rampant violations of American privacy rights -- in President Obama's first year of office, Mr. Snowden had completed an apparent arc from naivety to optimism to bitter cynical realism.  In a separate interview with The Guardian, he recalls:

Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world.  I realized that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good.  [President Obama] advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in.  I got hardened.

It appears that Mr. Snowden not only was a disgruntled government employee, he decided to take the first step in actions that could make him a whistleblower, or a criminal, according to your perspective.

CIA Floor
The CIA relieved Mr. Snowden after it found hints convincing his supervisor he had been attempting to hack into unauthorized files/servers. [Image Source: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty]

Things didn't get very far though.

Reportedly his supervisor found strong evidence that he had been trying to break into systems and files that he did not have access to (top-secret security access, after all, is relatively limited as at most agencies you only have access to the data you're working directly with).  Combined with his increasingly standoffish behavior, his supervisor wrote a derogatory report in his personnel file (called a "derog" in federal government jargon) and convinced CIA officials to relieve him from his post and ship him back home to the U.S.

III. CIA Records Never Reached NSA, USIS Gave Him Thumbs Up

The story might have ended there, but a determined Snowden opted to take up a series of positions working as the contractor for the NSA.  Shortly after returning to the U.S. he was hired by the U.S. consumer and enterprise hardware OEM Dell.  Dell sent him to a post in Japan where he was to assist as an NSA contractor.

At that point things could have been put to rest, if only the NSA were aware of Mr. Snowden's personnel record.  But the CIA never passed it along directly to them.

This was not atypical; historically communication between U.S. military intelligence and U.S. intelligence, and even communications between the various branches of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (as in this case) was dysfunctional at best.  

Booz Allen Hamilton
A Booz Allen Hamilton office in Virginia.  BAH hired Mr. Snowden, despite concerns. [Image Source: Reuters]

In the wake of heavy criticism and cries for reform after 9/11, it appears that Mr. Snowden's "derog" was filed as a lower level discipline document, as his supervisor warning -- based on telltale digital clues and a gut feeling -- lacked definitive proof that he had actually committed major rule-based infractions.  And while USIS -- the private Idylwood, Virginia-based security contractor who evaluated 700,000 checks of potential hires last year -- may have had access to the report, it didn't bother to raise any red flags with the NSA.

While he would never work directly for the NSA, he would go on to spend the next three years working at NSA locations as a contractor, first for Dell in Japan, then at Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Comp., Ltd. (BAH) at an NSA facility in Hawaii.  Applying the lessons learned at the CIA, coupled with security flaws, allowed Mr. Snowden to get a surprising broad level of access over what appeared to be many of the NSA's most sensitive files and reports -- precisely the kind of actions his former CIA supervisor had suspected and warned of in his personnel file. 

Previous reports that emerged in June reveal that Booz Allen Hamilton and the U.S. may have overlooked discrepancies (basically lies) on Mr. Snowden's resume, when they hired him earlier this year.  Specifically, he claimed to be about to receive a Master's Degree in computer security from a Tokyo-based program operated by University of Maryland, the UK University of Liverpool, and the Johns Hopkins University.

The claims might seem incredible, given Mr. Snowden only had a GED at the time, but because of his brilliance, his supervisors bought the claim.  Later investigations made his claims seem a stretch at best, although the Univ. of Maryland did confirm that he attend some classes in-person at an Asian campus last year.

IV. Congress Scrutinizes Lack of Sharing, USIS

Congress has reportedly been discussing the report in closed door sessions about the whistleblowing/security breach.  While's its perhaps unsurprising that a federal government obsessed with secrecy and spying on its own voting base would be a bit habitually lacking on transparency and sharing -- even between its own agencies -- this latest headache has built some momentum for change.

An unnamed Republican lawmaker told The NYT, "The weakness of the system was if derogatory information came in, he could still keep his security clearance and move to another job, and the information wasn’t passed on."

Kathy Pherson, a former CIA officer, who's now on a new government task force told The NYT, "We have a compelling need to monitor those trusted with this sensitive information on a more regular basis and with broader sets of data."

Mavanee Anderson -- a fellow former high security clearance CIA technical analyst who worked with and knew Mr. Snowden during his time in Geneva, comments, "[He was] experiencing a crisis of conscience of sorts.  Anyone smart enough to be involved in the type of work he does, who is privy to the type of information to which he was privy, will have at least moments like these."

No Spyn
Failing to do due dilligence during hiring has cost the NSA and its contractors a lot of image damage.
[Image Source: ACLU]

Many -- including some members of Congress -- have expressed support for Mr. Snowden, calling him a whistleblower, arguing he exposed abusive, secret programs that siphoned taxpayer dollars to contractors like Dell, BAH, and Oracle Corp. (ORCL) -- many of whom were top donors to President Bush and President Obama.  A group of former CIA officials went as far as to travel to Russia to present Mr. Snowden with a special award for his actions.

However, the intelligence community steadfastly stands by their labelling of Mr. Snowden as a criminal "traitor".  Mr. Snowden currently faces multiple criminal charges for his actions, but has thus far escaped prosecution, as he fled the country prior to outing himself as a source of the leaks.  Mr. Snowden has since travelled to Russia, gaining asylum there, much to President Obama's chagrin.

The contractor that vetted Mr. Snowden -- USIS -- has come under fire after it was revealed to have also vetted the D.C. Navy Shipyard shooter, Aaron Alexis.  The private contractor, which holds 100 major federal contracts with 95 federal agencies and subagencies is currently under investigation, according to reports, but similar past probes of contractors like Oracle and Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) have at worst typically led to a slap on the wrist monetarily.

Source: The New York Times

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