Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker who has been formally charged with espionage by the U.S. government, was the subject of an anonymously sourced story at CNN on Monday that, among other things, pushes back it the idea that Snowden was able to obtain the inner secrets of the surveillance agency. It's apparently in direct response to journalist Glenn Greenwald's earlier claim that Snowden had the "blueprint" for the agency at his fingertips. "Just because you have the blueprints doesn't mean you have the manual," the anonymous official told CNN, while floating the idea that the former contractor for the agency might not know what to do with what he has.
Earlier this month, Greenwald outlined the scope of Snowden's NSA stash, indicating that the whistleblower had refused to release some of the most sensitive information in his hands, based on what he described as Snowden's "careful and judicious journalistic test weighing public interest versus harm." That information includes the "blueprint" for the NSA, (which, contra the anonymous CNN source's zing, Greenwald also described as an "instruction manual"). So now that Greenwald and Snowden's version of events are out there, the U.S. is pushing back.
To be clear, it doesn't seem like either agency is denying that Snowden's data grab contains sensitive information. Citing an internal review, the official said that first, Snowden didn't access something called ECI, or "extremely compartmentalized information," but instead pulled a whole bunch of information at once from an area of the NSA's computer system in which a large amount of sensitive information was concentrated. And second, the official apparently insinuated that Snowden might not know what to do with the information he has, or as CNN put it, "A key question is whether Snowden, a former NSA contractor, really knows how the programs work at a detailed technical level."
While Snowden has previously been described as highly skilled — hence his ability to access the information he leaked to Greenwald et al. — the incompetency argument seen here isn't new. Rep. Mike Rogers, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, raised doubts about Snowden's abilities back in June:
"He clearly has over-inflated his position, he has over-inflated his access and he's even over-inflated what the actually technology of the programs would allow one to do. It's impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do."
Meanwhile, the fallout from the leaks might speak for themselves. Snowden, seen in the CNN piece as overstating his reach and, by doing so, giving sensitive information to terrorists, has also started to usefully change the way some Americans look at and use the internet. But the point addressed by the anonymous official — whether Snowden has the agency's deepest secrets, and whether he knows what to do with them — is in a way moot, assuming his previous promise not to release the most sensitive stuff he has stands. But it's clear that Snowden (and now, some lawmakers) knows way more than what we've seen so far. At this point, the NSA, just like everyone else, may just have to wait else he ends up making public.