Late yesterday afternoon the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a three-page executive summary (four, if we count the splendid cover photo) of its two-year inquiry into Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency (NSA) disclosures. On first reading, I described it as an “aggressively dishonest” piece of work.
With a day or so to reflect on it, I believe it’s worse than that. The report is not only one-sided, not only incurious, not only contemptuous of fact.
It is trifling.
After twenty-five months of labor, the committee’s “comprehensive review” of an immensely complex subject weighs in at thirty-six pages. (None of which we may read, because it “must remain classified.”) I have graded college term papers that long. It is one more dispiriting commentary on the state of legislative oversight that the committee’s twenty-two members, Republican and Democratic, were unanimous in signing their names.
A reminder at the outset. I am one of four journalists (with Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Ewen MacAskill) who received classified archives of NSA documents from Snowden. I am writing a book on the subject for Penguin Press. Feel free to consider, as you read this, that my stories in The Washington Post played a role in the disclosures that the committee is at pains to denounce.
The real burden of this report, released on the eve of the premiere of Oliver Stone’s Snowden film, is to offer a counter-narrative. An accompanying press release quotes committee members describing Snowden as “no hero,” “not a patriot,” and “a traitor.”
Since I’m on record claiming the report is dishonest, let’s skip straight to the fourth section. That’s the one that describes Snowden as “a serial exaggerator and fabricator,” with “a pattern of intentional lying.” Here is the evidence adduced for that finding, in its entirety.
“He claimed to have left Army basic training because of broken legs when in fact he washed out because of shin splints.”
This is verifiably false for anyone who, as the committee asserts it did, performs a “close review of Snowden’s official employment records.” Snowden’s Army paperwork, some of which I have examined, says he met the demanding standards of an 18X Special Forces recruit and mustered into the Army on June 3, 2004. The diagnosis that led to his discharge, on crutches, was bilateral tibial stress fractures.
“He claimed to have obtained a high school degree equivalent when in fact he never did.”
I do not know how the committee could get this one wrong in good faith. According to the official Maryland State Department of Education test report, which I have reviewed, Snowden sat for the high school equivalency test on May 4, 2004. He needed a score of 2250 to pass. He scored 3550. His Diploma No. 269403 was dated June 2, 2004, the same month he would have graduated had he returned to Arundel High School after losing his sophomore year to mononucleosis. In the interim, he took courses at Anne Arundel Community College.
“He claimed to have worked for the CIA as a ‘senior advisor,’ which was a gross exaggeration of his entry-level duties as a computer technician.”
Judge for yourself. Here are the three main roles Snowden played at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). (1) His entry level position, as a contractor, was system administrator (one among several) of the agency’s Washington metropolitan area network. (2) After that he was selected for and spent six months in training as a telecommunications information security officer, responsible for all classified technology in U.S. embassies overseas. The CIA deployed him to Geneva under diplomatic cover, complete with an alias identity and a badge describing him as a State Department attache. (3) In his third CIA job, the title on his Dell business card was “solutions consultant / cyber referent” for the intelligence community writ large—the company’s principal point of contact for cyber contracts and proposals. In that role, Snowden met regularly with the chiefs and deputy chiefs of the CIA’s technical branches to talk through their cutting edge computer needs.
“He also doctored his performance evaluations…”
Truly deceptive, this. I will tell the story in my book. Suffice to say that Snowden discovered and reported a security hole in the CIA’s human resources intranet page. With his supervisor’s permission, he made a benign demonstration of how a hostile actor could take control. He did not change the content of his performance evaluation. He changed the way it displayed on screen.
“… and obtained new positions at NSA by exaggerating his resume and stealing the answers to an employment test.”
The first clause is too vague to check. The second seems to be based on an unsubstantiated public statement from Booz Allen vice chairman Mike McConnell. I cannot purport to know for sure, but I do know this. The exam in question is routinely given to freshly enlisted Navy and Air Force recruits to determine their aptitude for entry level “computer network operations.” Snowden was a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer with years of experience under his belt by then. I can’t explain why anyone thinks he would have to steal the answers.
“In May 2013, Snowden informed his supervisor that he would be out of the office to receive treatment for worsening epilepsy. In reality, he was on his way to Hong Kong with stolen secrets.”
True! When Snowden decided to leave the NSA with a cache of documents for public release, he gave a false cover story for his absence.
That’s it. That’s the committee’s whole case for Snowden as big fat liar. I won’t belabor the irony, but let’s note in passing that four of the six claims are egregiously false, and a fifth is hard to credit. We can only hope the classified report, which boasts 230 footnotes, has better evidence. If you know whether or not that’s the case, feel free to let me know.
The report’s executive summary also has plenty of misleading claims on other subjects—a remarkable number, really, for just three pages. Most have been the stuff of tub-thumping denunciations for years. Snowden “fled to Russia.” Well, no. He tried to fly to Ecuador, and the U.S. government trapped him in the Moscow transit lounge by revoking his passport. Or … Snowden could have relied on whistleblower protections. The Washington Post examined that proposition and found it largely incorrect. Or … Snowden stole 1.5 million classified documents. In fact, the nation’s most senior intelligence officers, no admirers of Snowden, have repeatedly said they can only surmise the number. Then-Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director Michael T. Flynn, who is now advising Donald Trump, said “we assume that he took” every document he could reach. Then-NSA Director Keith Alexander said the agency could only count “what he touched, what he may have downloaded.”
Consider, next, the question of damage. I believe Snowden’s disclosures did a lot more good than harm, but I do not share the view of some of his fans that he did no damage at all. Even so, what are we to make of Subcommittee Chairman Lynn Westmoreland? In language largely echoed by the official report, Westmoreland said Snowden “did more damage to U.S. national security than any other individual in our nation’s history.” How about FBI agent Aldrich Ames, who helped the former Soviet Union roll up a whole U.S. espionage network and kill our agents? Or Julius Rosenberg, maybe, who only handed over plans for the atomic bomb? Or, as some would have it, George W. Bush, for the catastrophic choices he made in Iraq?
Another way to think on this is to ask, what counts as damage? Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others decided to encrypt the links between their data centers after my colleague Ashkan Soltani and I disclosed that the NSA was breaking into their private clouds. Now the NSA probably can’t do that any more, or not as easily. It has to use legal process and approach the companies through the front door. Is that damage? Is that disconnected, as the committee implies, from any legitimate question of “privacy or civil liberties”? Or are the new restrictions on surveillance a policy response to intelligence overreach?
Let me close with a dog that doesn’t bark at all. The committee states, in its press release, that this report is aimed at examining “post-Snowden reforms.” There is no discussion at all of reform when it comes to the powers, policies, and practices of surveillance. Only one reform is deemed worth mentioning, and here the committee judges the NSA harshly. There is “more work” to do, the committee says, to make sure its secrets are locked down tighter from now on.
Editor’s Note: Commentary has been updated as of September 18, 2016 changing “Or the Rosenbergs, maybe, who only handed over plans for the thermonuclear bomb?” to “Or Julius Rosenberg, maybe, who only handed over plans for the atomic bomb?”.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report mistakenly identified the U.S. government official who “helped the former Soviet Union roll up a whole U.S. espionage network and kill our agents” as FBI agent Robert Hanssen. The correct reference is CIA officer Aldrich Ames; the report was updated to reflect this change on January 30, 2017.
Cover Photo: Laura Poitras/ACLU.