Edward Snowden took a job at the intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton specifically to steal American intelligence information, according to a report today in the South China Morning Post quoting the NSA leaker's last major interview before his current international manhunt. But instead of settling the question of where Snowden got the files he eventually leaked, the Morning Post's vague revelation raises important questions about his previous employers, and might provide subtle answers on his Chinese exit strategy.
The report from Hong Kong's English-langugage paper isn't specific in its details. It reads, in part:
For the first time, Snowden has admitted he sought a position at Booz Allen Hamilton so he could collect proof about the US National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programmes ahead of planned leaks to the media.
“My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked,” he told the Post on June 12. “That is why I accepted that position about three months ago.”
This has been reported as though to suggest that Snowden applied for and got his job at Booz in order to pilfer the cache of files he ended up leaking. But it's unclear if Snowden accepted the position to collect all of the information he subsequently leaked or merely some of it. It's quite possible that he had some documents prior to that employment, given that his relationship with reporters from the Guardian predates his Booz employment.
Snowden's admission above (and one later in the Morning Post article) imply that he may have sought employment at Booz to gather information primarily about foreign places in which the United States was conducting hacking operations. In other words, Snowden may have been collecting precisely the insurance policy that he ended up using to escape extradition from Hong Kong. Its statement announcing Snowden's departure has a very pointed reference to the hacking of Hong Kong computer systems revealed by Snowden.
So where did the rest of the files come from, if not Booz? It's clear that Snowden's information-collection could have started no earlier than 2011, which was the point at which a contract agency called USIS conducted the background check that gave the leaker his top-secret clearance. Talking Points Memo has a good rundown of Snowden's known work history, which includes a cloudy stretch between 2009 and the present. In 2009, he left the employ of the CIA to work for contractors, including, at some point, a subsidiary of Dell Computers. Why he left that employer (or those multiple employers) isn't clear, but, in conversation with the Guardian, Snowden has indicated that it was a period during which he grew increasingly disaffected with security work.
When Booz hired him this spring, it "found possible discrepancies in his resume," according to Reuters.
[Snowden] was hired this spring after he convinced his screeners that his description of his education was truthful, said the source, who is not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
It is unclear precisely which element of Snowden's resume caused personnel officials at Booz Allen Hamilton to raise questions about his background. Also unclear is how he satisfied their concerns.
It's unlikely that the discrepancies included Snowden papering over his having been fired from a previous employer for, say, suspicious behavior. But, again, it isn't clear how he spent 2012. A spokesperson for Dell declined comment to Reuters on Snowden. In 2009, it acquired a security firm (once owned by Ross Perot) that did contract work for the government.
It is possible that Snowden got all of his files from Booz. Initial reports detailing the use of a thumb drive to exfiltrate the information from Booz suggest that the government therefore had a good sense of what was taken. But it would mean that he had no files when he first contacted the press. Snowden reached out to the Washington Post's Barton Gellman on May 16 with evidence of the existence of the PRISM program. His relationship with the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald goes back further, with his having contacted the reporter in February, indicating that he had "information" that would be of interest. This was well before he began work at Booz, which fired Snowden the day after he went public on June 9. Greenwald didn't actually communicate with Snowden until "a few months ago," according to a timeline from the Huffington Post — at which point he had files in his possession.
If he had any files prior to his Booz employment, there's another contractor out there who has not yet been held publicly accountable for its role in the leak. Until the inevitable book / movie about the whole affair, there are only a few people who know if there is: Snowden, probably Greenwald, possibly the government, and — hopefully — Snowden's previous employers.
Photo: Protestors in Hong Kong hold the image of Snowden. (AP)