Most people are well aware that a 29 year old NSA contractor has released various levels of classified documents to the press. This has caused a furor in the government as they both try to hold Snowden accountable and not comment on the veracity of the documents. I am not going to comment on the veracity of the documents or discuss the credibility of Mr. Snowden. I can make fun of the entire situation, but there is an interesting trend that is starting to be illuminated.
The other case for the credibility of Mr. Snowden.
Rather than attack the veracity of the documents that Mr. Snowden has release the focus has been on his statements that he is a spy, made $200K a year, where he worked, his lack of education, his political naivety, and his propensity for grandiosity. The focus has circled around him rather than the documents. If I was setting up an information operation to discredit him I can see no way to be more successful than that.
Consider though a different view and criticism.
- Mr. Snowden was a low-level contract employee in the information technology department who allegedly had access to high-level classified documents.
- Mr. Snowden was able to access, retrieve, and copy high-level classified documents as a contractor.
- The NSA is the perceived government expert agency at information security and this happened under their noses.
- The NSA is supposed to be the trusted repository of our personal lives and arbiter of signals intelligence but a low level contractor gained access to the classified information.
- The vetting process of the federal government for security clearances did not detect a hostile entity within the system.
- The contracting management did not detect or manage their employee and basically was just a body shop.
- The contracting process put a person with no college education, no high school diploma, and obvious maturity issues into a trusted position that usually would require advanced schooling and time in service.
- Snowden accessed classified information and was able to travel to a communist controlled country without detection.
- And, many more allegations
The old hands in the government will say that contractors are a way of life and those in the know will laugh because NSA has struggled with this issue for quite some time. The fact that something is known, and then not fixed is not an excuse. It is a reason to fire leadership. The credibility of an agency to arbitrate and analyze within the rule of law signals intelligence is suspect if they can’t control access of a low-level employee. The various attacks on Mr. Snowden’s veracity are valid, credible, and provide just how messed up the NSA must be internally.
Each and every criticism applied to the case of Mr. Snowden is also a critique of the vetting process, inherent problems of government in general and the NSA specifically. If Mr. Snowden is indicative of the caliber of talent that the NSA is willing to contract at great expense, for their information technology practice I am deeply concerned.
The excuse made by government in support of the expensive contracting process is that the system will not allow for hiring people like Mr. Snowden. On the face of it that is a good thing. I would prefer that the government NOT hire more Snowdens. My concern is that the contracting process has even more of these type of people with access to classified information. The statement by the contracting companies that most leaks are done by government employees does nothing to support more trust in a system that is broken. Obviously the entirety of the system is suspect.
Another excuse is that a system with literally millions of people supporting it with security clearances a few bad eggs will get through. That is an interesting and broadly sweeping generalization of the vetting process. So, we should expect that the center of information security, the trusted source of signals intelligence, the possessor of all the nations secrets, the expert agency at information security will ultimately fail. Then why were they given the authority in the first place?
One element of being a spy agency is that you get to declare wild success without providing evidence of the classified activity. When you fail horribly you can claim that you can’t be successful every time. With minimal credible technical oversight (the experts are the experts) and minimal information for political oversight the NSA has an interesting place. Yes, the NSA will always complain that politicians are, “Up in their business making their life difficult.” As a person who takes privacy and civil liberties seriously I am ok with that.
I am very interested to watch this particular witch hunt. With each and every piece of evidence that Mr. Snowden was a rascal we get to see how bad the failure of the national intelligence system has grown. I expect in the next few weeks that focus will turn towards the Defense Security Service and the Office of Personnel Management. These two agencies represent the vetting agencies for security clearances. The NSA has a primary responsibility for those working within their system and the intelligence community have special provisions for clearing their workforce. That does not make the case for trust higher. It just shows with even special provisions failure can occur.
I guess I won’t be getting an invite this year to the NSA Christmas party.