Counterintelligence and criminal investigators are examining whether Edward Snowden, the technology contractor who leaked details about classified U.S. spy programs, might have been recruited or exploited by China.
To pursue that question, investigators will use the very surveillance tools revealed by Snowden to probe his own phone calls and online communications to see whether he’s had any contact with Chinese or other foreign agents, as well as whether security officials missed any signs that he might be a security risk, said two U.S. officials briefed on the matter.
Snowden’s exposure of programs collecting data on telephone and Internet communications has sparked a criminal inquiry by the Justice Department as well as a review by U.S. intelligence agencies of how the leak occurred. The 29-year-old fled to Hong Kong last month before revealing himself as the source, and U.S. lawmakers said they want to know more about what led him to act.
“We need to ask a lot more questions about his motives, his connections, where he ended up, why he is there, how he is sustaining himself while he is there and is the Chinese government fully cooperating,” said Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
The panel is working with U.S. intelligence agencies on “a thorough scrub” of Snowden’s possible ties to China, Rogers, a Michigan Republican, told reporters in Washington yesterday. He spoke after a classified briefing with General Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency.
In addition to interviews with Snowden’s relatives and co-workers, the investigation will include a review of all of his available e-mails, text messages, online postings, telephone calls and other communications, said the two U.S. officials and two former officials familiar with counterintelligence investigative procedures.
The inquiry will also seek to determine his movements by searching for geo-location records from mobile phones and other devices he used, the officials said. They all asked not to be identified discussing the loss of top-secret intelligence and possible avenues of investigation.
In the counterintelligence inquiry, the two current U.S. officials said, investigators will also explore questions about Snowden’s finances and search for any evidence of sexual entrapment or blackmail, techniques they said China and other nations still use to recruit Americans and other agents.
To investigate Snowden, the former officials said, the Federal Bureau of Investigation will request orders from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court similar to the one that Snowden provided to the U.K.-based Guardian newspaper. That order, a copy of which was published by the Guardian last week, compels Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) to give the NSA all the so-called meta-data on its customers’ calls, including phone numbers and the duration of conversations.
Because Snowden has said he revealed top-secret information to the media, they said, approval from the court established under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act should be virtually automatic. Once the data are obtained, investigators will use NSA computer algorithms to analyze his communications and contacts while he held a top-secret security clearance.
All four current and former officials hastened to say they were unaware of any evidence linking Snowden to China and that the inquiry into possible contacts with Chinese or other foreign intelligence services is based solely on what they called circumstantial evidence.
That includes seeking refuge in Hong Kong and exposing the programs just as President Barack Obama was to discuss Chinese computer hacking with President Xi Jinping, the officials said. The leaks also followed Chinese threats to reveal information on U.S. computer espionage, an issue cited by Snowden in an interview with the South China Morning Post newspaper in which the only country he cited as a target was China.
All four were quick to add that Snowden may be nothing more than the idealistic whistle-blower he claims to be.
While Hong Kong has a legacy of free speech and a capitalist economy from 156 years of British rule, China has held control of the city since July 1, 1997.
“It seems unusual that he would be in China and asking for protection of the Chinese government and giving press conferences to the Chinese media,” Maryland Representative C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the intelligence panel, told reporters. “We’re going to investigate.”
Justice Department prosecutors are in the process of preparing charges against Snowden, according to two U.S. officials briefed on the matter. Once charges are filed, the U.S. will ask Hong Kong to detain Snowden for as many as 60 days before making a formal extradition request, according to a treaty signed between the two countries in 1996.
Hong Kong will deal with any extradition request based on its own legal system, the city’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said in a Bloomberg Television interview in New York. He declined to comment on specific cases.
Snowden most recently worked for the NSA under government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. (BAH) Booz Allen said June 11 it had fired the computer specialist, who had been with the McLean, Virginia-based company for less than three months.
FBI Director Robert Mueller, whose agents are conducting the criminal investigation, told the House Judiciary Committee yesterday that Snowden’s exposure of the surveillance initiatives had caused “significant harm to the nation.”
The Obama administration has confirmed the existence of the program compelling Verizon to provide the NSA with customers’ telephone records. It also has confirmed the existence of a separate program, called Prism, that monitors the Internet activity of foreigners believed to be located outside the U.S. and plotting terrorist attacks.
The disclosures have reignited a political debate that has repeatedly flared since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks about the balance between civil liberties and protection from terrorism. Some lawmakers have raised concerns about the legitimacy of surveillance efforts such as those revealed by Snowden.
Michigan Representative John Conyers, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, questioned yesterday whether the FBI, which has a role in analyzing the data at issue, was violating the intent of federal laws that allow the programs to exist.
“It seems clear that the government’s activity exceeds the authority this Congress has provided, both in letter and in spirit,” said Conyers, who added that he plans to introduce a bill today to impose limits and new oversight for the programs.
Mueller, who will depart the FBI in September after 12 years on the job, told the panel that the collection of data under the two programs was fully legal.
“The legality has been assured by the Department of Justice,” Mueller said in his first public comments on the disclosures. The FISA court “has ruled on these two programs, monitors these two programs and has assured the legality of the efforts undertaken in these two programs.”
U.S. intelligence agencies are also concerned about additional classified information Snowden has with him on a thumb drive, laptops or other devices, and also about more mundane matters that could be useful to foreign spy services.
Those include, the two former officials said, names and personal data of employees at the NSA, as well as information on the agency’s Threat Analysis Center at the U.S. military’s Pacific Command in Hawaii, a high-value target for China. Snowden was working in Hawaii, under a Booz Allen contract with the NSA, before fleeing to Hong Kong last month.
As a systems administrator, the officials said, Snowden should know what security protocols the NSA used, although they would have been changed since his departure.
Editors: Michael Shepard,