Edward Snowden

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NSA says Snowden stole password to access secrets

  • Article by: David e. Sanger
  • New York Times
  • February 13, 2014 - 7:23 PM

The National Security Agency told Congress that it has forced out a civilian employee after a lengthy investigation to “assign accountability” for the disclosure of intelligence secrets by Edward Snowden, one of its former contractors.

Two others — identified only as an “active-duty military member” and another contractor — were “removed from access to NSA information” and facilities in August. But because neither worked directly for the NSA, the agency told the House Judiciary Committee in a letter, any further action would have to be determined by their employers.

The letter was intended to answer congressional queries about who, beyond Snowden, would be held accountable for the security lapses that led to his disclosures. The answer appeared to suggest that no senior officials of the NSA or its oversight organization, the office of the director of national intelligence, would be disciplined or fired for what officials have called the largest and most damaging disclosure of classified material in American history.

The director of the NSA, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, is retiring next month. The director of national intelligence, James Clapper Jr., who has also been a focus of criticism for failing to police the speed at which security upgrades have been conducted in the intelligence community, remains in office.

First public account provided

The NSA letter was written by the director of the NSA’s legislative affairs office, Ethan Bauman, and provided the first public account of how Snowden obtained access to materials for which his passwords would not give him access.

It said that an “NSA civilian” — reported to be Snowden’s supervisor, although the letter did not say that — gave the 29-year-old contractor his “Public Key Infrastructure” certificate to gain access to documents on NSA Net, the intelligence agency’s intranet.

A “Public Key Infrastructure” certificate is a first step in enabling access to a restricted computer system. But gaining access also requires passwords, and the letter from the NSA alleged that Snowden used digital deception to obtain the password; the civilian NSA employee entered his password on Snowden’s computer, not realizing that “Mr. Snowden was able to capture the password, allowing him even greater access to classified information.”

Snowden denied password theft

In past interviews, Snowden has denied that he stole the passwords of colleagues to gain access to material in the NSA’s systems.

Clapper has confirmed to Congress that Snowden released a “web crawler” inside the NSA’s computer systems once he had gained access. That crawler, which automatically indexes the NSA Net and could copy any documents in its path, would essentially use the passwords that Snowden held.

Snowden later copied files delivered by the crawler to an external storage device, like a thumb drive or hard disk drive, before leaving his NSA job in April. He now has temporary asylum in Russia.

The letter to the committee suggested that the NSA has understood how Snowden obtained passwords since June 18, when “the NSA civilian admitted to FBI special agents that he allowed Mr. Snowden” to use his credentials. The NSA said it “initially suspected the civilian’s access to NSA sensitive compartmented information” and revoked his security clearances in November. The civilian resigned Jan. 10.

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