Snowden at SXSW in March. Photo: (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP)
Kurt Eichenwald, who wrote in 2007 about many of the National Security Agency programs that Edward Snowden's documents have described over the past year, has a series of 16 skeptical questions for the former NSA-CIA analyst that NBC News did not get around to asking. Some get to Snowden's motives. I have a few more questions that I'd like to see him answer. They are critical, in the sense that they presume that every action he took or decided not to take has consequences, all either foreseen or sensibly inferred. (If asking these questions makes you pitifully obeisant to Barack Obama or the NSA, then I plead guilty — but not without first insisting on a stipulation about how horribly watered down that description has become).
1. What three NSA reforms would you like to see written into law, right now?
2. If you had not disclosed specifics about these programs, what would the NSA have been able to do that they are now not going to be able to do? Do you think they would attempt to revive the internet metadata collection program that ended in 2009 if the technology advanced to the point where it was much easier to segregate U.S. persons data from non-U.S. persons data?
3. All of the domestic content collected by the NSA is controlled by an access restriction called RAGTIME. RAGTIME products include the FISA Amendments Act collection (which the NSA calls large content FISA), the traditional FISA collection (for which an order for a specific individual or target must be obtained in advance), the BR FISA telephone metadata program under the PATRIOT Act's Section 215, and the FBI's FISA collection using government wires. Did you have access to RAGTIME information? Would an audit of RAGTIME information tell us whether the NSA was improperly targeting people it knew or suspected to be U.S. persons?
4. It's said that you took as many as 1.7 million documents from NSA files. You've hinted that that number is high and exaggerated. If, on the low end, you took only 100,000 separate documents from the NSA, can you affirm that each and every document was personally reviewed by you in advance to determine, at least in your mind, if, once disclosed, it would cause damage to legitimate American national security interests? What tests did you use? What does harm or damage in this context mean to you?
5. Assuming that you absconded with several documents to use as collateral in case your life were endangered or the stories not published, can you affirm today that, say, 99 percent of the documents you took, if published with only the redaction of specific countries and targets, would not damage national security?
6. By identifying the journalists to whom you gave the documents, aren't you putting a lifetime target on them for priority collection by foreign intelligence services? If you were part of the People's Liberation Army's 2nd Directorate, wouldn't you assign, say, 20 people whose full-time job it was to target Bart Gellman's home, office, mobile, and cloud internet usage? Obviously, leaking the information to journalists implies that the journalists' identities would become public. But why imply, or say, that they now have full possession of hundreds of thousands of classified documents?
7. What ground rules did you set with the journalists? Have any violated your ground rules? (Glenn Greenwald suggests that The New York Times, which received the documents from The Guardian, published information that you did not want to see published.) When The Guardian gave The New York Times the documents, did you fear that the agreement you made with journalists representing The Guardian was not safe?
8. Is there any evidence that the NSA specifically engineered a "backdoor" into any commercially available encryption technology and then encouraged people to adopt it? (There is evidence that they knew of a backdoor that existed in at least one instance and encouraged the company not to publicize it.) Is there a meaningful distinction between the two?
9. Why would the NSA malevolently encourage foreign governments to adopt an encryption standard that the NSA had endorsed? (In other words: Hi, Chinese military hardware manufacturer. I'm from the NSA. You know, the American code-breaking, eavesdropping agency. Please use this encryption standard we endorsed! Thanks!)
10. If you were a foreign government agency or entity that might be a target of the NSA, what would you do as soon as you read about the NSA's specific techniques for hacking into computers or networks as delineated in the catalog of devices and implants revealed by Der Speigel? Is the description of these techniques vague enough so as to prevent these foreign entities from discovering them if very highly trained computer technicians were to scrub each device for software or hardware implants that resemble those in the catalog?
11. Is there a way for the NSA to fulfill its intelligence-gathering mission today without collecting large amounts of data from foreign cable taps? If so, how?
12. Do you believe that the U.S. government would physically harm you if given the opportunity? Why? In what sense would your situation be analogous to that of Anwar al-Awlaki?
13. How come there have not been other Edward Snowdens? Did the NSA whistleblowers who came before you do their whistle-blowing insufficiently? Did they not reveal enough about the specific programs? What advice would you give to future whistleblowers?
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why you shouldn't eat dog. Not even once.
- Why you should really take a nap this afternoon, according to science
- How U.S. special forces are preparing for the worst-case scenario in North Korea
- Why Israel can no longer let the Palestinian Authority be responsible for security in the West Bank
- Grammar quiz: Do you know the passive voice?
- How social conservatives became a minority in need of protection
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- I hate Ayn Rand — but here's why my fellow conservatives love her
- Why charity can't solve society's deepest problems
Subscribe to the Week