If the NSA trusted Edward Snowden with our data, why should we trust the NSA?

Whenever we think about America’s seemingly super-powerful intelligence community, we should be less in awe of its capabilities and much more alert to its incompetence.

Farhad Manjoo makes an excellent argument: Edward Snowden sounds like a thoughtful, patriotic young man, and I’m sure glad he blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance programs. But the more I learned about him this afternoon, the angrier I became. Wait, him? The NSA trusted its most sensitive documents to this guy? And now, after it has just proven itself so inept at handling its own information, the agency still wants us to believe that it can securely hold on to all of our data? Oy vey!

According to the Guardian, Snowden is a 29-year-old high-school dropout who trained for the Army Special Forces before an injury forced him to leave the military. His IT credentials are apparently limited to a few “computer” classes he took at a community college in order to get his high-school equivalency degree — courses that he did not complete. His first job at the NSA was as a security guard. Then, amazingly, he moved up the ranks of the United States’ national security infrastructure: The CIA gave him a job in IT security. He was given diplomatic cover in Geneva. He was hired by Booz Allen Hamilton, the government contractor, which paid him $200,000 a year to work on the NSA’s computer systems.

Let’s note what Snowden is not: He isn’t a seasoned FBI or CIA investigator. He isn’t a State Department analyst. He’s not an attorney with a specialty in national security or privacy law.

Instead, he’s the IT guy, and not a very accomplished, experienced one at that. If Snowden had sent his résumé to any of the tech companies that are providing data to the NSA’s PRISM program, I doubt he’d have even gotten an interview. Yes, he could be a computing savant anyway — many well-known techies dropped out of school. But he was given access way beyond what even a supergeek should have gotten. As he tells the Guardian, the NSA let him see “everything.” He was accorded the NSA’s top security clearance, which allowed him to see and to download the agency’s most sensitive documents. But he didn’t just know about the NSA’s surveillance systems—he says he had the ability to use them. “I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities [sic] to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email,” he says in a video interview with the paper.

Because Snowden is now in Hong Kong, it’s unclear what the United States can do to him. But watch for officials to tar Snowden — he’ll be called unpatriotic, unprofessional, treasonous, a liar, grandiose, and worse. As in the Bradley Manning case, though, the more badly Snowden is depicted, the more rickety the government’s case for surveillance becomes. After all, they hired him. They gave him unrestricted access to their systems, from court orders to PowerPoint presentations depicting the crown jewels of their surveillance infrastructure. [Continue reading…]

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4 thoughts on “If the NSA trusted Edward Snowden with our data, why should we trust the NSA?

  1. Phil Sheehan

    It’s the Manning situation all over again. He was a 20 year old E3 with unsupervised access to stuff you’d expect a 40 year old Bird Colonel to have trouble getting.

  2. pabelmont

    An enterprising blackmailer or detective (or sleeper spy) taking a long view might get a job with a USA security / anti-terrorism / CIA / FBI / NSA / ?? contractor and by-and-by get access to almost anything.

    To use as he pleases (illegally, of course) for blackmail, etc. We are not safe from this, because the USA, so seemingly alert for terrorists who threaten whatever it is that they threaten are viewed as a threat whereas spy/blackmail/ etc. is not viewed as a sufficient threat for the USA to make reasonable checks on who gets access (should anyone? that’s aniother question). Anyone remember J Edgar Hoover and his files of secrets? Does NSA blackmail all Congressmen with secrets obtained via its all-seeing eyes? How’d we know?

  3. Paul Woodward

    This touches on another but related issue: that intelligence agencies, even while nominally required to serve governments, see themselves as the protectors of the state in which governments come and go. In the eyes of some intelligence officers there can apparently be times when it becomes necessary to remove the leader of a government. There are multiple accounts of plots against Britain’s prime minister Harold Wilson, who some in MI5 suspected of being a KGB agent. MI5 later investigated itself and discovered that it was completely innocent. Who could doubt the findings of an agency dedicated to subterfuge and deception?

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