No, Edward Snowden's Leaks Weren't Due to Sequestration

A small detail from a Washington Post interview with Edward Snowden's father has been seized. Lon Snowden blames government sequestration for Edward's job change. That's unlikely.

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A small detail from a Washington Post interview with Edward Snowden's father has been seized upon by political observers today. Lon Snowden disputes his son's claim that he went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton in order to steal more documents. Instead, Lon blames a scarier opponent: government sequestration, which cost his son his prior contract position.

Lon is probably wrong. But the idea does lend an ironic air to the Defense Department's opposition to cuts. In April, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before a Senate committee on how the sequestration's across-the-board cuts would harm national intelligence efforts.

“Sequestration forces the intelligence community to reduce all intelligence activities and functions without regard to impact on our mission,” the nation’s senior intelligence officersaid, adding that the cuts jeopardize the nation's safety and security, and that the jeopardy will increase over time.

“Unlike more directly observable sequestration impacts like shorter hours at the parks or longer security lines at airports,” he said, “the degradation to intelligence will be insidious. It will be gradual and almost invisible until, of course, we have an intelligence failure.”

At that point, April 18 of this year, the cuts had already begun. (Somewhat oddly, though, that article, originally published by the American Forces Press Service, doesn't mention a failure that occurred three days prior: the bombing of the Boston Marathon.) And also by that point, Snowden was already working for Booz Allen Hamilton. He left for Hong Kong on May 20, having been a contractor with the firm for "less than 3 months," according to the company. It's not clear if Booz considers that time period to have ended on May 20 or on the date of his termination, June 10 (the day Snowden's identity became public). Assuming the latter, it means that he started after March 10th and before April 10th.

The problem for Lon Snowden's story is that the sequestration didn't kick in until March 1. While it's certainly possible that the agency began cutting contracts prior to that date in anticipation of the cuts, it offers a fairly tight timeline. Snowden would need to be cut from one contractor and rehired by Booz in a little over a month.

That's assuming that the NSA was cutting contractors due to the sequestration. When we looked at the NSA's budget earlier this year, it quickly became apparent that the classified organization is pretty good about hiding details like its human resource processes. It's clear that the analysts who work for the NSA — the position Snowden held — are considered core to the agency's operation. Last September, as agencies were uniformly presenting arguments against losing funding, NextGov assessed how a unilateral cut would affect cyberintelligence. "Wartime cybersecurity operations would not be affected," it reported, "but Cyber Command hiring and long-term development of offensive cyber weapons could be hurt, White House sequestration planning documents suggest." The distinctions here are nebulous and the conclusions sketchy, but the implication is that jobs like Snowden's wouldn't quickly be abandoned. And according to Reuters, the NSA didn't even start employee furloughs until June. The broader Defense Department didn't start until May.

Was Snowden's leak the result of sequestration? No. Snowden reached out to The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald in February, indicating that his leaks had nothing to do with Booz.

Could the Booz gig itself have been a result of the sequestration? It could have, possibly, if his contract was cut quickly and his application at Booz processed quickly and if his "less than three months" at the company was closer to "just over two months." It is also possible that a son, setting out to betray his security clearance and become one of the most prominent leakers in history, came up with an excuse for a job change that wouldn't cause his father any concern.

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