An 'Overwhelmed' NSA Still Doesn't Know What Snowden Took

Despite the NSA's statements to the contrary, it looks like the intelligence agency doesn't know everything that whistleblower Edward Snowden took from them after all.

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Despite the NSA's statements to the contrary, it looks like the intelligence agency doesn't know everything that whistleblower Edward Snowden took from them after all. Intelligence officials told NBC News that the NSA was still “overwhelmed” with the work of finding out what else Snowden has. The news comes just two days after British authorities detained journalist Glenn Greenwald's partner David Miranda for nearly 9 hours.

Here's why the agency hasn't yet caught up to Snowden's leaks, according to NBC:

The NSA had poor data compartmentalization, said the sources, allowing Snowden, who was a system administrator, to roam freely across wide areas. By using a “thin client” computer he remotely accessed the NSA data from his base in Hawaii. One U.S. intelligence official said government officials “are overwhelmed" trying to account for what Snowden took. Another said that the NSA has a poor audit capability, which is frustrating efforts to complete a damage assessment.

NBC's report fits right into a PR war over what the government knows about Snowden's secret stash. Here's the recap: in early June, investigators figured out that Snowden probably took information from the NSA's servers using a thumb drive, leading one official to say that they "know how many documents he downloaded and what server he took them from," implying that the government was well on its way to getting a handle on the damage. But later that month, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters that the White House still didn't know what Snowden took. Then, an anonymously-sourced story at CNN confidently claimed that Snowden didn't have the "instruction manual" to the NSA's surveillance programs, in response to a comment from Greenwald indicating that Snowden had something like a "blueprint" to the agency in his hands. But the most overtly omniscient statement on the NSA's capacity to figure out what Snowden has comes from the agency's director Keith Alexander:

We have tremendous oversight over these programs. We can audit the actions of our people 100 percent, and we do that.

The Atlantic previously raised some doubts over that claim. For one thing, Alexander said in June that the agency was "now putting in place actions that would give us the ability to track our system administrators." Alexander has since said that he was going to just replace almost all of the system administrators working for the NSA with machines.

NSA followers won't be terribly surprised at the discrepancy between public and private statements from the agency. Just last week, an internal audit obtained by Snowden and leaked to the Washington Post revealed that the agency has very little oversight from the secret court designed to keep it legal. That report was, if not the last, one of the final nails in the coffin for the agency's "oversight" rebuttal to criticism of their secret data collection programs.

The detention of Greenwald's partner Miranda, and the ensuing reports of apparent intimidation from British officials towards the Guardian over their reporting on Snowden's leaks, indicates that some authorities might be taking harder tactic towards the whole damage control problem. According to the Guardian's editor, British intelligence officials even forced the paper to destroy hard drives containing encrypted versions of the leaks. British intelligence officials could be worried about potential reports in the future on some of the information authorities are pretty sure Snowden took: details of the data collection programs in the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, who work closely with the NSA. But don't worry: the White House is ready to assure Americans that such tactics wouldn't happen in the U.S. of A.: Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters today in a press briefing that it was "very difficult to imagine a scenario in which" destroying the hard drive of a journalist "would be appropriate."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.