5 ways NSA leaker Edward Snowden's story isn't holding up

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A TV screen in a Hong Kong restaurant shows a news report on Edward Snowden on June 12.
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A TV screen in a Hong Kong restaurant shows a news report on Edward Snowden on June 12.

In ways both big and small, Snowden's tale of patriotic betrayal is spouting its own leaks

Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old IT specialist who leaked a trove of top secret National Security Agency documents, insisted in his coming-out video that he doesn't want to be the story. If that was really his wish, it hasn't come true. Fierce debate has erupted over whether he's a hero or traitor, dangerous or productively disruptive, and the media has even developed a certain (mildly disturbing) fascination with an acrobat who could be Snowden's apparently abandoned girlfriend.

Nobody's disputing that the documents he leaked — and there are apparently dozens more in activist-journalist Glenn Greenwald's hopper — are real and revealing. Some of the more explosive details in the initial reporting of his NSA leaks aren't holding up to scrutiny, though — and now even the story he tells about himself is starting to unravel a bit. Here, five ways Snowden's professed biography is coming under fire:

1. Snowden overstated his salary... by a lot
We'll start with the most inconsequential, and most easily verifiable, part of Snowden's humblebrag. In his video, Snowden says he is so concerned about exposing the government's overreach he gave up a comfortable life in Hawaii with his girlfriend and a $200,000-a-year salary. On Monday — to the surprise of no one — his employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, fired him, "for violations of the firm's code of ethics and firm policy." It also casually mentioned his salary — $122,000. Not bad for a high school dropout who had been on the job for three months, but not $200,000, either.

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"The Guardian, which employs fact-checkers, either did not verify these details about Snowden's story or did not report them," says Joshua Foust at Medium. "How could it have missed such seemingly basic details? And should this call into question other reporting about Snowden and his leaked documents?"

2. He reportedly left his home on May 1
The more that people dig into Snowden's narrative, the clearer it is that "a lot of his story doesn't add up," says Foust at Medium. For example, "one reporter found a real estate agent who said that Snowden's house in Hawaii had been empty for weeks before he fled the country on May 20." He also told The Guardian that he left for Hong Kong after taking a couple weeks' leave from work, ostensibly to get medical help for epilepsy.

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The Hawaii realtor said the owner wanted Snowden and his girlfriend out of the house by May 1 so it could be sold, but also that the police stopped by last Wednesday — four days before Snowden outed himself — to ask where the couple had gone. If Snowden had been planning his leak for months, as he claims, where did he stay for three weeks, and why did he stay in Hawaii?

3. Snowden didn't have 'authority' to wiretap anybody
The most eye-popping claim Snowden made was this:

Any analyst at any time can target anyone.... Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the ability to target everything. But I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone: From you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the president if I had a personal email.

That claim is "absolutely outrageous," former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden tells The Daily Beast. Snowden "was not a collector," and no low-ranking contractor like him would have the authority to access anyone's phone calls or read anybody's emails.

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Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer at the NSA and CIA, agrees that Snowden's boast is a "complete and utter" falsehood. "First of all it's illegal," he tells the Los Angeles Times. "There is enormous oversight. They have keystroke auditing. There are, from time to time, cases in which some analyst is [angry] at his ex-wife and looks at the wrong thing, and he is caught and fired."

Of course, "it is difficult to evaluate the claims of the officials — or those of Snowden," says Eli Lake at The Daily Beast, "because the organization operates in almost total secrecy."

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4. He might not have had the ability to do so, either
It's certainly possible that Snowden was using some technical definition of "authorities" — like system administrator permissions, for example — but even then, it's not clear how he would have been able to wiretap anyone, technically. "It's actually very difficult to do your job," a former senior NSA operator tells the Los Angeles Times. "There are all these checks that don't allow you to move agilely enough." The analyst elaborates:

When he's saying he could just put any phone number in and look at phone calls, it just doesn't work that way.... It's absurd. There are technical limits, and then there are people who review these sorts of queries.... Let's say I have your email address. In order to get that approved, you would have to go through a number of wickets. Some technical, some human. An individual analyst can't just say, "Oh, I found this email address or phone number." It's not simple to do it on any level, even for purely foreign purposes. [Los Angeles Times]

"I don't know if Snowden's claim is accurate," says Marc Ambinder at The Week. But "as a systems administrator, he certainly is entitled to the benefit of the doubt when it comes to an assessment of the NSA's internal information security."

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As a mission support specialist, Snowden would have had access as part of his jobs to the physical servers and hard drives that contain material. If he did not want to leave an audit trail, he might have disconnected a hard drive containing temporarily cached documents, brought them into an area that included desktops and hardware not cleared for such access, connected them, and then printed documents out. It is also possible that he disabled, under the guise of fixing something, access privileges for auditors. He could have temporarily escalated his own access privileges, although this would have raised flags among his superiors....

On some technical matters, Snowden's proficiency can't be questioned. But some of his assertions about the intelligence community are difficult to square with reality. [The Week]

5. Snowden's résumé is fishy
Several former CIA officials tell The Washington Post that it seems unlikely that the agency would hire somebody without a high school diploma, especially for a technical job, "and that the terms Snowden used to describe his agency positions did not match internal job descriptions," The Post says.

Snowden's claim to have been placed under diplomatic cover for a position in Switzerland after an apparently brief stint at the CIA as a systems administrator also raised suspicion. "I just have never heard of anyone being hired with so little academic credentials," the former CIA official said. The agency does employ technical specialists in overseas stations, the former official said, "but their breadth of experience is huge, and they tend not to start out as systems administrators." [Washington Post]

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