How to ‘obtain’ a memo from the NSA

Obtain: to get something that you want, especially through your own effort, skill, or work

e13-iconMichael Isikoff reports: A civilian NSA employee recently resigned after being stripped of his security clearance for allowing former agency contractor Edward Snowden to use his personal log-in credentials to access classified information, according to an agency memo obtained by NBC News.

In addition, an active duty member of the U.S. military and a contractor have been barred from accessing National Security Agency facilities after they were “implicated” in actions that may have aided Snowden, the memo states. Their status is now being reviewed by their employers, the memo says.

The Feb. 10 memo, sent to congressional intelligence and judiciary committees this week, provides the first official account of a sweeping NSA internal inquiry aimed at identifying intelligence officials and contractors who may been responsible for one of the biggest security breaches in U.S. history. The memo is unclassified but labeled “for official use only.”

While the memo’s account is sketchy, it suggests that, contrary to Snowden’s statements, he used an element of trickery to retrieve his trove of tens of thousands of classified documents: “At Snowden’s request,” the civilian NSA employee, who is not identified by name, entered his password onto Snowden’s computer terminal, the memo states.

When an investigative journalists writes that he has “obtained” a memo from the NSA, it might seem that the publication of the memo is the fruit of the labor of investigation. Obtain connotes, he got his hands on it, rather than, it fell into his lap.

In the case of Michael Isikoff and the NSA memo he obtained, how much effort did that require?

I don’t know, but I doubt it involved much more effort than is required to open an email from a Congressional staffer with a subject line like “Must-read document.”

Maybe it didn’t come by email. Maybe it was delivered by hand. Either way, my guess is that more effort was being made by the sender than the receiver. Indeed, in this case I wouldn’t put it past the sender to have volunteered a loaded term like “trickery” in an unspoken quid pro quo along the lines that a journalist lucky enough to be selected to receive such a gift should show his gratitude by framing his report in terms that would please the source.

As with so many news reports, assessing its significance requires more than reviewing its content. It requires that we understand how it came to be published.

Isikoff is in this respect no different from any other reporter: he reveals nothing about his own investigative process.

What he does is advance a narrative that the NSA have been pushing from day one: that Snowden should not be seen as a whistleblower; he should be treated as a thief.

Yet the NSA, like every other intelligence agency, is not run by professional truth-tellers. From their perspective, Snowden represents a multifaceted problem and one element of the solution they are pursuing is character assassination.

Snowden has not faced questioning under oath in Congress, but so far — unlike Keith Alexander and James Clapper — nothing he has said has been demonstrated to be a bald-faced lie.

The New York Times notes that another feature of the memo is that it appears designed to lay to rest any expectation of high-level accountability:

The letter, first reported by NBC News, was intended to answer congressional queries about who, beyond Mr. Snowden himself, would be held accountable for the security lapses that led to his disclosures. The answer appeared to suggest that no senior officials of the N.S.A. or its oversight organization, the office of the director of national intelligence, will be disciplined or fired for what officials have called the largest and most damaging disclosure of classified material in American history.

The director of the N.S.A., Gen. Keith B. Alexander, is retiring next month after serving far longer than his predecessors. The director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., who has also been a focus of criticism for failing to police the speed at which security upgrades have been conducted throughout the intelligence community, remains in office.

Both men, and their wives, were guests at the state dinner on Tuesday night for France’s president, François Hollande, which was widely interpreted as an indication they remained in good stead at the White House.

Like Isikoff, the Times reporter, David Sanger, appears to be carrying water for the NSA when he claims that the question — “did [Snowden] have the help of a foreign intelligence service?” — is “reverberating around the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department”.

While those reverberations are apparently audible to Sanger, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein has heard nothing.

Finally, one question that neither of the reporters address is whether it would be unusual for NSA employees or contractors to provide a systems administrator with their passwords. Even though, for obvious reasons, that practice can be described as a security lapse, it might also have been commonplace.

If that’s the case, then the individual referred to in the NSA who resigned, may now justifiably feel like the fall guy.

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