House committee: Snowden is a 'serial exaggerator and fabricator'

A report condemning the leaker is coincidentally released the day his biopic hits theaters. 

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David Lumb
September 16, 2016 4:34 PM
Reuters/Brendan McDermid
Reuters/Brendan McDermid

The US House of Representatives' intelligence committee just releasing a statement condemning Edward Snowden and recommending he be extradited to face justice. After two years spent reviewing the 1.5 million documents Snowden stole and interviewing experts, the committee report rejects his whistleblower claims and attempts to poke enough holes in his story to portray him as a dangerous liar. Obviously, the government has an incentive to downplay his leak's accomplishments and hammer home their threat to the country, but with the ACLU and Amnesty International calling on President Obama to pardon Snowden, it's critical to look past the static of competing narratives.

As expected, the intelligence committee's 36-page report is classified "to avoid causing further harm to national security," so we have to make do with its publicly-available summary. It emphasizes four points:

  • That the "vast majority" of documents Snowden stole (most of which he has not leaked) expose military, defense and intelligence secrets instead of programs concerning public privacy
  • That, according to the committee's definition, he is not a whistleblower
  • That he had a spat with his National Security Agency managers
  • And that he lied about or exaggerated multiple events in his past
While the third seems very out-of-place, and probably inserted to imply that the tiff motivated his decision to leak documents, the others are serious claims.

The review concluded that the stolen materials contain secrets that protected American troops and "provide vital defenses against terrorists and nation-states." Further, they hindered intelligence-gathering and ruined certain information streams. Snowden says he has not yet shared the full document cache with anyone, which Reuters cites as being closer to 200,000 or 300,000 rather than the 1.5 million claimed by the committee's report.

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But according to the report, a Russian defense and security committee claims that Snowden shared some or all of the documents with it. The committee especially took issue with his practice of leaking data online, where any of America's enemies can find it. The full expenditure of mitigating damage from the leaks, it concludes, has cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars and could eventually tally up to billions.

The committee also doesn't believe Snowden fits the bill of whistleblower because he didn't disclose classified info showing "fraud, waste, abuse or other illegal activity" to law enforcement or oversight personnel, such as Congress. The committee claims it found no evidence he took official efforts to express his concerns up the chain of command or to the committee itself, which would have afforded him whistleblower protections. It does concede that Snowden sent a much-discussed email to NSA attorneys questioning the accuracy of a training exam that seemed to suggest executive orders superseded existing laws.


But whether Snowden communicated other concerns is a complex question. If we take the intelligence committee's report at its word, then it's simple: He didn't. But an extensive review of documents and emails Vice received after a Freedom of Information Act request shows an internal scramble by the NSA to ensure there weren't any. This was before a Vanity Fair story in April 2014 and an NBC interview in May 2014.

As for the committee report's insistence that Snowden would have been protected under whistleblower laws as a contractor (had he gone through the right channels to qualify as such) and that he would have known how to report his concerns -- that's fuzzy too. According to Vice, even the NSA director at the time, Gen. Keith Alexander, was not sure whether contract employees had such protections when Snowden testified before the European Parliament in March 2014. The Washington Post was similarly uncertain whether he would have been immune from reprisals under then-current laws.

It's also unclear whether Snowden knew how to report concerns. In a Q&A sheet supplied by the NSA to the White House and Department of Justice in May 2014, the agency maintained that his positions would have required him to complete a basic training course, "NSA/CSS Intelligence Oversight Training," with appropriate reporting instructions. But it stops short of explicitly stating that Snowden completed the course.

Further, the Q&A notes that while the Office of the Inspector General, where Snowden should have brought his requests, did send regular all-agency emails urging employees to report. But almost all pushed for them to look for waste, fraud, resource mismanagement and abuse of authority -- municipal concerns, not legal or procedural ones. It was only in spring 2014, almost a year after Snowden first leaked documents in May 2013, that the OIG's notices changed to urge reporting on "possible violations of law, rules or regulations." The Q&A document is really also a map of all the policies put in place in response to the Snowden leaks, Vice points out, including the Privacy and Civil Liberties Office created in August 2013.

Finally, the intelligence committee report emphasizes several irregularities and exaggerations Snowden made over time. He claimed to have left Army basic training due to broken legs, but he'd washed out due to shin splints. He also stated he'd gotten an equivalent to a high school diploma, but hadn't. He said he'd worked for the CIA as a "senior adviser" but the report asserts he was an entry-level computer technician. He doctored performance evaluations, according to the committee, and exaggerated his resume and stole answers to an employment test to get new positions at the NSA. While the above would certainly qualify Snowden as a boastful employee that allegedly did unethical things to get employed, it's too irregular to paint a pattern of substantial unlawful deception.

The report's summary closes by reprimanding the NSA and intelligence community for not doing enough to prevent another leak of this magnitude. While it admits that completely eliminating the chance of another Snowden is impossible, more should be done to improve security of people and computer networks. But the real rebuke seems aimed at the people, a pre-emptive strike to saturate society with scathing criticism of the infamous leaker as Oliver Stone's Snowden biopic opens in theaters today.

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House committee: Snowden is a 'serial exaggerator and fabricator'