Partial Disclosure

United States of Secrets

a Frontline documentary (part one produced and directed by Michael Kirk; part two produced by Martin Smith)
Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden; drawing by James Ferguson

Within days of the publication of No Place to Hide by the journalist Glenn Greenwald, a photograph began circulating on the Internet that showed National Security Agency operatives surreptitiously implanting a surveillance device on an intercepted computer. After nearly a year of revelations about the reach of the NSA, spawned by Edward Snowden’s theft of tens of thousands of classified documents, this photo nonetheless seemed to come as something of a surprise: here was the United States government appropriating and opening packages sent through the mail, secretly installing spyware, and then boxing up the goods, putting on new factory seals, and sending them on their way. It was immediate in a way that words were not.

That photo itself was part of the Snowden cache, and readers of Greenwald’s book were treated to the NSA’s own caption: “Not all SIGINT tradecraft involves accessing signals and networks from thousands of miles away,” it said.

In fact, sometimes it is very hands-on (literally!). Here’s how it works: shipments of computer network devices (servers, routers, etc.) being delivered to our targets throughout the world are intercepted. Next, they are redirected to a secret location where Tailored Access Operations/Access Operations…employees…enable the installation of beacon implants directly into our targets’ electronic devices. These devices are then re-packaged and placed back into transit to the original destination. All of this happens with the support of Intelligence Community partners and the technical wizards in [Tailored Access Operations].

Edward Snowden, as we all now know, was another kind of NSA technical wizard, whose job entailed teaching agents how to shield their digital devices from surveillance and designing systems to thwart other countries cyberspying on the United States. Though he was in his twenties and without traditional educational credentials, having neither a college nor a standard high school degree, Snowden’s computer abilities gained him ever-increasing security clearances, even when he was not an employee of the United States government but, rather, a contract worker. This, we’ve learned, was not unusual. As Greenwald reports, the NSA employs twice as many civilian contractors—60,000—as it does agency employees—30,000—many of whom hold “confidential” and “top secret” security clearances.1

As Greenwald describes him, Snowden was a libertarian with a patriotic bent. His father was career military, and he himself enlisted in the army in 2004 determined to fight in Iraq, only to break both legs during training, resulting in his discharge. From there he went to work for the CIA, first as a security guard and then, within a year, in an information technology position. Two years later he was sent to Geneva, “undercover with diplomatic credentials,” as a systems administrator working on, among other things, cybersecurity.

It was in Geneva that Snowden first grew disillusioned with American spy craft. As he told Greenwald, his complaints to superiors about what he considered to be ethical lapses were dismissed and ignored:

They would say this…


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