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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

U.S. security: only as strong as its weakest leak

If you wrote the story of Edward Snowden as a novel, no one would buy it, literally or figuratively. It requires the suspension of too much disbelief.

Who could possibly believe that a 29-year-old guy with little formal schooling could land a plum job at the National Security Agency and get top-level security clearance — and pull down a $200,000-a-year salary? How could he climb so quickly to a position where he could access the most closely held government secrets?

But wait. Imagine the same young man decides to leak vast amounts of classified information to the press because he disagrees with what he perceives as inappropriate intelligence gathering on the part of the administration. Then he flees to Hong Kong. Then he disappears. Then the story comes out that he met his press contacts in a Hong Kong hotel, and they knew it was he because he carried a prearranged prop — a Rubik’s Cube.

We all know by now that the story is real and that Snowden, an NSA employee, did indeed leak thousands of secret government documents to Ewen MacAskill, a Guardian newspaper reporter, Glenn Greenwald, a civil-liberties writer, and Laura Poitras, a filmmaker. In an interview, Snowden said that while working at the NSA he saw “disturbing” things on a “frequent basis” and decided that what he saw was evidence of government snooping into private lives.

It is common knowledge that in the years since 9/11, the American government has been collecting information on individuals and groups in an effort to avoid further terrorist attacks at home. I’ve always assumed that meant looking at phone records, Internet communications and real-time gatherings of suspicious individuals. I know the operative word is “suspicious,” and the dicey issue is who gets to decide who should be followed or recorded or interviewed.

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