Three days after National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden went public, the mystery around him and the information he illegally gave to reporters shows no signs of abating.
Snowden has simply vanished. He checked out of his Hong Kong hotel Monday and no one has seen him since. Whether he’s been nabbed by authorities or is on the run is anyone’s guess.
But the bigger mystery centers on what else Snowden knows. It’s not clear if he has more top-secret documents in his possession on top of the slideshow that revealed the PRISM program and a copy of an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
According to reports, despite top-level security clearance, Snowden has documents that he should not have had access to. For instance, administration officials questioned how he could have accessed the FISA court order, a document that should have been off-limits to someone in his position as an NSA contractor. Former NSA inspector general Joe Brenner suggested that Snowden might have used his IT position to give himself administrator access across multiple databases of classified materials.
“So many things are classified and so many things are top secret,” William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, told The Fiscal Times. “It can be some amazingly compromising information.”
Cyber directives and an NSA surveillance PowerPoint are likely the tip of the classified iceberg. Snowden might have had access to nuclear weapons plans or infrastructure vulnerability reports. He might have documents revealing the location of missile sites, or lists of CIA officers. He’s claimed as much, telling Greenwald he had “full access to the rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all around the world, the locations of every station we have, what their missions are and so forth.”
Administration and intelligence officials are downplaying these claims, telling the Washington Post that they doubt his claims of widespread access. But if Snowden does have more sensitive information he has yet to leak, he could join other defense contractors who stole documents and changed history.
While working as a contractor in the Netherlands for the British nuclear power company the URENCO Group in the 1970s, Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan began stealing designs for nuclear centrifuges. He subsequently sent them to Pakistan, giving the country the ability to build nuclear weapons.
When Dutch intelligence began to investigate, Khan fled to Pakistan and oversaw the construction of Pakistan’s military arsenal. Pakistan subsequently sold nuclear weapons plans to North Korea, Libya and Iran, drastically shifting the balance of world power (the Libyan nuclear weapons program was dismantled in 2003).
AN ARMY OF PRIVATE CONTRACTORS
Even if Snowden did not have access to nuclear plans, it’s likely that someone like him – a civilian with security clearance – does. There are 500,000 private contractors with top-secret access. When government employees are included, that number swells to 1.4 million with security clearance, according to The Washington Post.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy and an expert on security clearance, says that gaining the necessary clearance is not as difficult as one might think.
“It’s a process of vetting either government employees of contractors to ensure that they are trustworthy and loyal to the United States and therefore eligible to have access to classified info," he told The Fiscal Times. “There are disqualifying factors: heavily in debt, an alcohol or drug problem, or a history of sexual misconduct of criminal behavior. Otherwise, chances are you can get it.”
But as Snowden illustrates, this does not always work. According to reports, the rush to fill security clearance jobs has diluted the hiring and vetting process, making it possible for people to slip through the cracks.
NO GOOD OPTIONS
Right now, Snowden has few good options. It’s possible he’s already been captured. It’s possible that he’s on the run. Without a fake passport, he can’t leave China: The electronic dragnet he felt obligated to expose would identify him immediately.
This backs him into a corner. He could ask for asylum at an embassy of a country that does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. He could take refuge at the Russian embassy, a country that has already offered him asylum and is very interested in the documents he has. He could also approach the Chinese government to try to trade the secrets he has for a safe home there.
Colluding with the Russians or the Chinese would end the debate about his status as a whistleblower. It would make him a spy. But maybe Snowden has a fake identity and is already off the grid.
At this point in the mystery, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the high school dropout were smarter than us all.