If the NSA Trusted Edward Snowden With Our Data, Why Should We Trust the NSA?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 9 2013 7:44 PM

If the NSA Trusted Edward Snowden With Our Data, Why Should We Trust the NSA?

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National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Edward Snowden sounds like a thoughtful, patriotic young man, and I’m sure glad he blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance programs. But the more I learned about him this afternoon, the angrier I became. Wait, him? The NSA trusted its most sensitive documents to this guy? And now, after it has just proven itself so inept at handling its own information, the agency still wants us to believe that it can securely hold on to all of our data? Oy vey!

According to the Guardian, Snowden is a 29-year-old high school dropout who trained for the Army Special Forces before an injury forced him to leave the military. His IT credentials are apparently limited to a few “computer” classes he took at a community college in order to get his high school equivalency degree—courses that he did not complete. His first job at the NSA was as a security guard. Then, amazingly, he moved up the ranks of the United States’ national security infrastructure: The CIA gave him a job in IT security. He was given diplomatic cover in Geneva. He was hired by Booz Allen Hamilton, the government contractor, which paid him $200,000 a year to work on the NSA’s computer systems.

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Let’s note what Snowden is not: He isn’t a seasoned FBI or CIA investigator. He isn’t a State Department analyst. He’s not an attorney with a specialty in national security or privacy law.

Instead, he’s the IT guy, and not a very accomplished, experienced one at that. If Snowden had sent his résumé to any of the tech companies that are providing data to the NSA’s PRISM program, I doubt he’d have even gotten an interview. Yes, he could be a computing savant anyway—many well-known techies dropped out of school. But he was given access way beyond what even a supergeek should have gotten. As he tells the Guardian, the NSA let him see “everything.” He was accorded the NSA’s top security clearance, which allowed him to see and to download the agency’s most sensitive documents. But he didn’t just know about the NSA’s surveillance systems—he says he had the ability to use them. “I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities [sic] to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email,” he says in a video interview with the paper.

Because Snowden is now in Hong Kong, it’s unclear what the United States can do to him. But watch for officials to tar Snowden—he’ll be called unpatriotic, unprofessional, treasonous, a liar, grandiose, and worse. As in the Bradley Manning case, though, the more badly Snowden is depicted, the more rickety the government’s case for surveillance becomes. After all, they hired him. They gave him unrestricted access to their systems, from court orders to PowerPoint presentations depicting the crown jewels of their surveillance infrastructure. (Also of note: They made a hideous PowerPoint presentation depicting the crown jewels of their surveillance infrastructure—who does that? I’ve been reading a lot of Le Carré lately, and when I saw the PRISM presentation, I remembered how Le Carré’s veteran spy George Smiley endeavored to never write down his big secrets. Now our spies aren’t just writing things down—they’re trying to make their secrets easily presentable to large audiences.)

The worst part about the NSA’s surveillance is not its massive reach. It’s that it operates entirely in secret, so that we have no way of assessing the sophistication of its operation. All we have is the word of our politicians, who tell us that they’ve vetted these systems and that we should blindly trust that the data are being competently safeguarded and aren’t vulnerable to abuse.

Snowden’s leak is thus doubly damaging. The scandal isn’t just that the government is spying on us. It’s also that it’s giving guys like Snowden keys to the spying program. It suggests the worst combination of overreach and amateurishness, of power leveraged by incompetence. The Keystone Cops are listening to us all.

Watch excerpts from The Guardian's interview with Snowden:

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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