More Details Emerge Showing The US Government Has No Idea How To Solve A Problem Like Snowden
from the piling-futility-on-futility dept
For all of its surveillance and number-crunching powers, the NSA has had little success in dealing with its Snowden problem. It still seems the agency has no idea what Snowden took, with guesses varying wildly over the past several months. Some reports (not the NSA’s) have put that number as low as 60,000. The NSA continues to claim the number is over one million, even with its most recent guess revising its first estimates downward.
But the number of documents is only part of the problem. Details of the government’s inability to apprehend Snowden, as well as its uncertainty as to his current location or activities, continue to surface. Snowden seems to be able to operate in the all-seeing-eye’s blind spots, according to officials quoted by Greg Miller at the Washington Post.
The first indication that the government was operating several steps behind Snowden surfaced during his move from Hong Kong to Russia. The plan, such as it were, was to rely on the benevolence of a country whose president often displays a casual antipathy towards the United States.
For weeks, senior officials from the FBI, the CIA, the State Department and other agencies assembled nearly every day in a desperate search for a way to apprehend the former intelligence contractor who had exposed the inner workings of American espionage then fled to Hong Kong before ending up in Moscow.
Convened by White House homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco, the meetings kept ending at the same impasse: Have everyone make yet another round of appeals to their Russian counterparts and hope that Snowden makes a misstep.
Snowden didn’t misstep, but the US did, concentrating its efforts on a flight to Bolivia that the former NSA contractor never boarded. (It also scrambled a rendition jet on the off-chance that Snowden could be seized out in the open.) And even if he had decided to head that direction, there was actually very little the US could have done about it. Forcing the plane to land (as it did with the president of Bolivia’s jet) wasn’t the problem. This could be done in any allied airspace. The problem was that the country’s jurisdiction ended where the plane’s cabin began.
Even if Snowden had been a passenger, officials said, it is unclear how he could have been removed from a Bolivian air force jet whose cabin would ordinarily be regarded as that country’s sovereign domain — especially in Austria, a country that considers itself diplomatically neutral.
“We would have looked foolish if Snowden had been on that plane sitting there grinning,” said a senior Austrian official. “There would have been nothing we could have done.”
But what is probably more concerning is the fact that US intelligence seems to have little idea what Snowden’s doing, where he’s living or anything else. While some officials have made claims that Snowden is now working for Russian intelligence, any actual intelligence is sparse and nearly impossible to verify.
Snowden is facing espionage-related charges, and the FBI has power to conduct wiretaps and enlist the NSA and CIA in its investigative efforts overseas. But even with such help, officials said, the bureau’s reach in Moscow is limited.
“The FBI doesn’t have any capability to operate in Moscow without the collaboration of the FSB,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official who served in the Russian capital.
Further hampering its investigation is the lack of evidence that Snowden is working for a “foreign power” or actively aiding an enemy state. Russia, despite its problems, simply doesn’t qualify as a direct opponent of our national security. And so far, nothing obtained has indicated Snowden is now an FSB operative. Without this crucial stipulation, the government can only go so far in its efforts.
Several U.S. officials cited a complication to gathering intelligence on Snowden that could be seen as ironic: the fact that there has been no determination that he is an “agent of a foreign power,” a legal distinction required to make an American citizen a target of espionage overseas.
For all the claims that Snowden has done irreparable harm to US security with his leaks, it’s kind of surprising that the government can gather so little information on the current situation of its public enemy #1. This also shows that the surveillance state is severely limited without cooperative partners, something countries expressing outrage over expansive data/communication harvesting should take note of.
The government claims Snowden has harmed America, but can’t even determine what he took, who he’s working with or even where exactly he’s currently living. It can’t even provide enough evidence of its claims to build a case that would provide it more surveillance options. And yet, it wants to throw Snowden in jail for espionage. That doesn’t add up.