The Government Really Isn’t Sure What Snowden Took

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Out this morning in the New York Times is a stark tale: The United States’ intelligence apparatus has little idea what Edward Snowden took, despite spending half a trying to find out.

As the full scope of what Snowden absconded with likely can’t be known, the government is forced to operate on its toes, unsure of what might be coming next. And that could be anything. From the phone metadata program, to PRISM, to work on ending everyday encryption, to the pervasive XKeyscore, to MUSCULAR, the Snowden revelations have been as broad as they have been deep.

The facility that Snowden worked in was behind in its update cycle to better protect government information, an effort that kicked off following the WikiLeaks episode.

That the government can’t assess what Snowden did or did not take has led to internal division inside the NSA: Is it better to buy Snowden off with a shot at amnesty? It depends, it would seem, on whether Snowden has any documents in reserve.

As quoted by CBS News, current NSA boss General Keith Alexander views giving Snowden amnesty in exchange for concessions similar to hostage taking:

This is analogous to a hostage-taker taking 50 people hostage, shooting 10 and then say, “If you give me full amnesty, I’ll let the other 40 go.” What do you do?

Also quoted by CBS News in the same article is Rick Ledgett, an individual currently working to prevent another Snowden-like leak from happening, concerning the offering of legal reprieve in exchange for return of information:

So, my personal view is, yes, it’s worth having a conversation about. I would need assurances that the remainder of the data could be secured, and my bar for those assurances would be very high. It would be more than just an assertion on his part.

Ledgett went on to note that his view is not “unanimous” among the agency.

Does Snowden have more documents on his person or in his care that he could return in exchange for amnesty? As the Times reported today, maybe:

[I]n October, Mr. Snowden said he had given all of the documents he downloaded to journalists and kept no additional copies.

In recent days, a senior N.S.A. official has told reporters that he believed Mr. Snowden still had access to documents not yet disclosed.

So, its a muddle. If Snowden is lying about what he has, he could be limiting his ability to come home, something perhaps similar to cutting off his nose to spite his citizenship. However, the idea that he has more documents could be simple spin from the government to give it moral and legal freedom to pursue Snowden as an active threat. Without the documents, the importance of his person greatly declines, which could irk the government if it wishes to continue its aggressive pursuit of the man.

Like the government, we’ll find out more of what Snowden took as Glenn Greenwald, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel and others report on the revelations.

The folks that claim they are smart enough to determine just how much privacy we need and deserve can’t keep their own house in order. That’s something to dwell on.

Top Image Credit: Flickr