NSA Emails Provide Little Insight Into Snowden's Pre-Leak Concerns, But Speak Volumes About Agency's Internal Controls

from the a-smoking,-tangentially-related-gun dept

Jason Leopold has secured another comprehensive set of Snowden-related documents from the NSA, dealing with the agency's search for evidence backing up his claim that he tried to take his complaints to intelligence community officials before heading to Hong Kong with a drive full of secret documents.

The long, detailed post -- written with the help of Marcy Wheeler and Ky Henderson -- covers the 800+ pages of internal emails released to Vice in response to a FOIA request. The headline suggests there's a smoking gun, but a few thousand words later, the conclusion seems to be, "There's possibly a smoking gun... and the NSA, due to malice or just incompetence, is going to be of no help in locating it."

What is undoubtedly true is that there was more to Snowden's concerns than the single email released to shore up the NSA's side of the story. There is evidence Snowden contacted other officials about his concerns, but the agency decided to present the single email as though that were the extent of Snowden's complaints.

This posed problems later as Snowden repeated his assertion to other news outlets, including NBC and Vanity Fair. These resulted in further search efforts from the agency which had already claimed to have uncovered everything that could be considered evidence of Snowden's "proper channels" claims.

The following morning, [NSA General Counsel Rajesh] De sent someone at NSA an email with the subject line "NBC/email."

"I need very senior confirmation [Kemp/Moultrie) [a reference to the NSA's director of security and Ron Moultrie, then the NSA's deputy SIGINT director] that all possible steps have been taken to ensure there are no other emails from [Snowden] to OGC," De wrote.

Those assurances apparently could not be provided — even though the agency had publicly been saying over the course of a year that no other relevant communications from Snowden existed.

What's been released by the NSA seems at odds with Snowden's claims that he made several efforts to bring his concerns to the proper authorities. Other communications were uncovered, but none of those dealt with privacy concerns or other whistleblowing attempts.

That certainly doesn't mean the NSA's first assertion that Snowden didn't raise concerns internally is correct either. The released documents show that its ability to search its own files is far less robust than the systems it uses to dig through the rest of the world's communications. For one, the agency appears to have been unable to retrieve emails related to Snowden's work with Booz Allen. Another heavily-redacted email says the NSA was able to gather and read through everything from Snowden's NSAnet and NSAgov accounts, but appends the phrase "that we've been able to obtain," suggesting the results of its search aren't as comprehensive as it would have the public believe.

What's far more disconcerting is the fact that the NSA -- the king of metadata -- isn't able to keep its own email metadata in working order.

What's remarkable about this FOIA release, however, is that the NSA has admitted that it altered emails related to its discussions about Snowden. In a letter disclosed to VICE News Friday morning, Justice Department attorney Brigham Bowen said, "Due to a technical flaw in an operating system, some timestamps in email headers were unavoidably altered. Another artifact from this technical flaw is that the organizational designators for records from that system have been unavoidably altered to show the current organizations for the individuals in the To/From/CC lines of the header for the overall email, instead of the organizational designators correct at the time the email was sent."

There's no telling where this falls on the stupid/malicious scale, but either way, it helps the NSA muddy the timeline waters and obscure the agencies/personnel involved in these email discussions. That admission is downright frightening considering what the agency does with the metadata it harvests.

Remember, this is the agency that “kills people based on metadata,” per its former Director, Michael Hayden.

But “due to a technical flaw in an operational system,” it could not preserve the integrity of either the time or the aliases on emails obtained under FOIA.

That's the scary part. Here's the hypocritical part, as pointed out by attorney and CUNY law professor Douglas Cox, in response to Marcy Wheeler's post on the NSA's metadata problem:

[Y]our point is right on, even in more mundane contexts not involving drone strikes it is remarkable the disconnect between standards agencies impose and those they practice. When you are producing docs to a govt agency in response to doc requests, eg, you often have to abide by exacting standards in format including careful capture of metadata, but with FOIA you get things like this.

Among the things this careless approach to internal metadata accomplished was obscuring the genesis of one official's recounting of a face-to-face meeting with Snowden over surveillance concerns.

As noted, the compliance woman's story had to be corrected to match the dates up to when Snowden would have been at Fort Meade. "We received a call from D4 [Office of the Director of Compliance] questioning the dates (11 or 12 Jun) that [redacted] annotated during the discussions on" the Section 702 course, one of the other people in Oversight and Compliance wrote on April 10. She "has modified her dates to reflect 5-12 April 2013."

NSA did not provide a version of the draft of the email with the incorrect date. When the chief of Oversight and Compliance provided a description of all the department's interactions with Snowden to the NSA chief of staff, Elizabeth Brooks, in June 2014, there was no mention of any other paper trail of the exchange, though earlier that same day the deputy chief had stated, generally, that that information had been provided to Ensor on June 10, 2013.

One thing that is clear, however, is that the apology laying all these details out, written after several days of fact checking at the NSA and document review in June 2014, leaves out at least one key detail — that the OGC email and the face-to-face communication could have happened the same day, making it far more likely they should be treated as parts of the same exchange. More significantly, the apology claims that "in response to the June 2013 Agency All... she provided in writing her account of these engagements." If the timestamps on documents provided to VICE News are correct (something that the NSA has admitted is a problem with this FOIA response), she actually provided her side of at least the OGC contact even before the Agency All email. But there is no record she provided her written account, to either of these exchanges, until a year after the event, a detail — if true — that Rogers should have known.

Beyond that, there's the NSA's ongoing obsession with controlling this narrative. The agency refused to answer questions from Vice pertaining to these documents but it did send it an email informing it that it had already made the FOIA documents available at the ODNI's website, presumably in an attempt to undercut Leopold/Vice's "exclusive."

The jury is still out on Snowden's claims he took his complaints to the proper officials before deciding to leak the documents he obtained. The NSA's assertions of it just being one email would be far more believable if it could provide any evidence that it can handle its own internal email systems with any sort of competence. But as far as this release goes, there's nothing in it definitively pointing to multiple attempts by Snowden to raise concerns. But it's also a stack of documents whose release was overseen by the same agency he exposed and one that still needs every "victory" it can earn… or take.

Filed Under: ed snowden, emails, foia, internal controls, jason leopold, nsa, whistleblowing


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jun 2016 @ 1:31pm

    Never Mattered...

    Right now because whistle blowers are in fact treated like criminals, or marginalized, or threatened, or generally spit at by management there is no reason to believe anyone when they say that someone did not go through the proper channels.

    The government has spent so much time lying, cheating, and corrupting everything that I now just expect them to LIE any way they can to make themselves look better even when they know we know they are lying.

    We are so past this meta game by now that anyone believing anything a government thug is saying should just hold their breath in the bath tub till they pass out!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Jun 2016 @ 1:43pm

      Re: Never Mattered...

      The criminals are the ones in charge running things. The only way that lie stays is if those trying to expose their crimes are labeled as treated as enemies of the state, terrorists and evil men trying to hurt "the land of the free"

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jun 2016 @ 2:16pm

    Need Mo' Dox

    "The jury is still out on Snowden's claims he took his complaints to the proper officials before deciding to leak the documents he obtained."

    No. No, it's not. Nobody with a lick of sense ever believed Snowden was "guilty" of anything other than patriotism. Since he must, under law be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the only group who could provide "proof" is known to hold grudges and to lie without legal, moral, or ethical restraint, Snowden can never be convicted in any believable fashion.

    Time for the caretakers of the Snowden docs to take off the gloves and release some of the really damning materials. Let's reveal how extremely evil our NSA in particular and our federal government in general truly are.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Jun 2016 @ 12:19am

      Re: Need Mo' Dox

      would having a drone take out michael hastings car while he was driving it qualify for that sort of evil?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DavidMxx (profile), 6 Jun 2016 @ 2:41pm

    [...]the agency decided to present the single email as though that were the extent of Snowden's complaints.

    As I have said many times and will continue to say (until proven otherwise), the public spokespersons for the NSA et al have proven time and time again that when they speak, you should assume they are lying and go from there. You will be right most of the time.

    As for the NSA's competency, one should remember that they have failed to identify a single terrorist attack prior to it happening since (and including) the 9/11 attack, even though they have been collecting ever increasing data with their surveillance programs since long before 2001.

    I am sure that the people that work at the NSA are dedicated to protecting the USA and its citizens. I just wonder how long it's going to take for the NSA bureaucracy to admit the current approach is an abysmal failure.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Jun 2016 @ 12:23am

      Re:

      Interestingly enough about 2 weeks before 9/11 white house staff were warned not to fly on the very day the hijackings happened.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Jun 2016 @ 5:48am

      Re:

      I could get a system that would have a remarkable level of accuracy. Just simply have it claim everyone from the NSA to be a liar. Assuming that you have 1 liar in ten thousand, that would immediately give me 99.99% accurate. More than good enough to get lots of $$$ from fools. But if they insist on reporting something other than "everyone is a liar", then I could randomly select one scapegoat per ten thousand and reduce my accuracy to 99.98%. Still a quite acceptable level of performance.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      memo, 7 Jun 2016 @ 9:52am

      Wrong:

      You aren't following this too closely. They had identified the terrorist in San Diego. FBI, you the organization that has to do domestic leg work to follow up on intel tips, hadn't decided to go do something with it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 6 Jun 2016 @ 2:58pm

    Let's compare shall we?

    The jury is still out on Snowden's claims he took his complaints to the proper officials before deciding to leak the documents he obtained.

    On the one side you've got the NSA, which has a significant history of lying in general, and especially lying, getting caught, and then lying some more when it comes to Snowden and what he leaked, and who claims that Snowden was devious enough not to walk into the trap the government has set out for any foolish but well-meaning whistleblowers.

    On the other hand you've got Snowden, who as far as I know hasn't been caught in a single significant lie yet on the matter, and you can be sure that the government would be trumpeting it from the roofs had they managed to catch him in a big lie.

    Yeah, that's certainly a tricky thing for the 'jury' to consider, with two sides of equal history as far as telling the truth, but in the end it's also a moot point.

    Assume the NSA is telling the truth, that Snowden didn't walk into the trap set for whistleblower and instead went straight to the public. That doesn't show dishonesty, that shows a working brain. The 'official channels' aren't meant to solve problems unless by problem you mean 'Someone who doesn't know when to keep their mouth shut', so Snowden bypassing the official channels makes perfect sense if he actually wanted to inform the public and have something done about the problem he was seeing.

    Even if they were able to prove without a shadow of a doubt that Snowden was lying when he claimed he tried to go the 'official/approved' route first I'd still trust him more than the NSA, because the 'official' route is one giant trap, and if you have a working brain and actually want to see a problem addressed then that's the last way you'd go about bringing up your concerns.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jun 2016 @ 4:18pm

    Spies are professional liars and manipulators.

    By the very nature of what spies do, not a word they say can be trusted without robust, adversarial, third-party verification. Even the documents Snowden provided show that they consider all non-NSA actors to be "adversaries". That includes not only those damn Russians, Chinese, and North Koreans, but you, me, and everybody's red, white, and blue loving grandma.

    Given the current state of ridiculously aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers that had the treasonous audacity to expose the massive corruption within our government (and considering the lies they've already been caught telling), I'm going to have to go with, "These guys are lying."

    Snowden is either part of some insanely convoluted counterintelligence mission or is one of the greatest, bravest, most noble patriot/heroes our our day. Until I see proof to the contrary, the later is almost certainly true.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      DavidMxx (profile), 6 Jun 2016 @ 6:15pm

      Re: Spies are professional liars and manipulators.

      While I agree in general with you comment, there's one critical distinction here. The NSA has been caught persistently lying to the very people who give them their authority, namely Congress. When an organization actively works to subvert the very oversight controls that govern their operation, it's time to bring that organization back under control. What we need, and what we don't have, is a Congress that will bring the out-of-control NSA back under control.

      I hold out no hope that the current Congress will do that. It remains to be seen if the next Congress will do anything. The next test will be in 2017 when Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008 must be reauthorized for things to continue as they are.

      It also wouldn't hurt if Congress would actually apply our current laws, or mete out penalties for lying to Congress, another thing that the current Congress has consistently failed to do.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Memo, 7 Jun 2016 @ 10:01am

    Hasn't it struck any one odd...

    OK, so the whole premise of Snowden's words and actions were, "I think this is wrong. I tried to warn them. So I had to commit treason."

    He meticulously exfil's hundreds, or thousands of documents. Documents from many, many different sources. Not a trivial matter to get SIPR and JWICS (Top Secret) out of the network, but he does it.

    And yet... not even a single screenshot, email, or other evidence he did in fact raise this issue?

    No, we have an email where he's complaining about trick test questions and a single E-mail around the time Obama was abusing the living hell out of Executive Orders in defiance of Congress.

    Thousands of documents. Not one to build the underlying premise of his espionage. Not. One.

    Reading the emails. It's almost like he just decided to throw a temper tantrum because he sucked at what he wanted to cross-train into: intelligence analyst. He took the pre-test and failed it. "You tricked us." As a former military trainer, I've seen grown adults get insta-stupid when they fail tests. "I was never trained on this." "OK, why do I have your initials next to the Knowledge Check for that very task, with my initials next to it that I trained you on it. Did we both lie?" *silence*

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Aaron Walkhouse (profile), 7 Jun 2016 @ 6:01pm

    Instead of reading between the lines, lets see what they actually said:

    The following morning, [NSA General Counsel Rajesh] De sent someone at NSA an email with the subject line "NBC/email."

    "I need very senior confirmation [Kemp/Moultrie) [a reference to the NSA's director of security and Ron Moultrie, then the NSA's deputy SIGINT director] that all possible steps have been taken to ensure there are no other emails from [Snowden] to OGC," De wrote.

    Those assurances apparently could not be provided — even though the agency had publicly been saying over the course of a year that no other relevant communications from Snowden existed.

    NSA General Counsel advises that all traces of Snowden's
    lawful emails to his office be wiped from all systems so
    FOIA requests can be relied upon to back up his story by
    finding none of them. ‌ [We can presume he has already
    purged his own office systems and locked some of them
    away as potential evidence against Snowden.]

    Kemp and Moultrie reply that they cannot guarantee whether
    traces remain in the unprofessional messes under their control.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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