WASHINGTON — Counterintelligence investigators are scrutinizing how a 29-year-old contractor who said he leaked top-secret National Security Agency documents was able to gain access to what should be highly compartmentalized information, according to current and former administration and intelligence officials.
Edward Snowden worked as a systems administrator at an NSA Threat Operations Center in Hawaii, one of several such facilities that are tasked with detecting threats to government computer systems. He previously worked for the CIA, U.S. officials said.
Snowden leaked documents to The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper on distinctly different operations: the NSA’s collection of data from U.S. phone-call records and its surveillance of online communications to and from foreign targets.
In an ominous statement early Tuesday, Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian said there will be more “significant revelations” to come from the documents.
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Greenwald said: “There are dozens of stories generated by the documents he provided, and we intend to pursue every last one of them. We are going to have a lot more significant revelations that have not yet been heard over the next several weeks and months.”
Earlier, a senior U.S. intelligence official said investigators are “working with the NSA and others around the intelligence community to understand exactly what information this individual had access to, and how that individual was able to take that information outside the community.”
Among the questions is how a contract employee at a distant NSA satellite office was able to obtain a copy of an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a highly classified document that would presumably be sealed from most employees and of little use to someone in his position.
A former senior NSA official said that the number of agency officials with access to such court orders is “maybe 30 or maybe 40. Not large numbers.”
Snowden’s exact whereabouts were unknown Monday, and it was unclear whether U.S. officials had sought to interview him or have him apprehended by officials in Hong Kong, where he had taken refuge.
Administration officials said Monday they are working to confirm Snowden leaked the documents and build a case against him without relying on his admissions in his video interview with the Guardian.
FBI agents are interviewing Snowden’s family and associates, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.
Snowden, who said he leaked top-secret documents to expose abuse and not to cause damage to the United States, told the Guardian he had “full access to the rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all around the world, the locations of every station we have, what their missions are and so forth.”
Officials questioned some of Snowden’s assertions in his interview with the Guardian, saying that several of his claims seemed exaggerated. Among them were assertions that he could order wiretaps on anyone from “a federal judge to even the president.”
“When he said he had access to every CIA station around the world, he’s lying,” said a former senior agency official, who added that information is so closely compartmented that only a handful of top-ranking executives at the agency could access it.
Current and former administration officials were flummoxed by Snowden’s claim that he was authorized to access the orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The order probably would have been accessible to the NSA general counsel’s office, the compliance office that deals with the court, and the operational arm carrying out the collection, former officials said.
One ex-NSA official said the NSA employs layers of security to scrutinize employees, including keystroke-monitoring systems to identify potential breaches or unwarranted searches of NSA databases.
Joel Brenner, a former NSA inspector general, said any investigation needs to focus on how Snowden “had access to such a startling range of information.”
“The spy you want in an organization may not be the executive assistant to the secretary of state; it may be the guy in the bowels of the IT department because he has system-administrator privileges and because that person is also in a position to insert malware into your system to facilitate remote access,” Brenner said.
One administration official said it is too early to determine how the United States will attempt to take custody of Snowden. Officials may simply attempt to see if the authorities in Hong Kong will deport him and avoid the need for a full extradition procedure.
“Ultimately, a lot of these cases get resolved through something other than formal extradition,” said Shane Kadidal, a lawyer at the Center of Constitutional Rights in New York.
In Hong Kong, Snowden checked out of a hotel Monday where he was thought to be staying. Some in Hong Kong said the semiautonomous jurisdiction may not offer Snowden protection.
“Hong Kong is definitely not a safe harbor for him,” said Regina Ip, a lawmaker and chairman of the New People’s Party. Hong Kong has its own legislative and legal systems but ultimately answers to Beijing, under the “one country, two systems” arrangement, established when oversight of Hong Kong was transferred from the British to the Chinese in 1997.
The extradition treaty between Hong Kong and the United States was established at the time of the British-Chinese handover, because the treaty needed the blessing of Hong Kong’s new sovereign ruler, the Chinese government.
The treaty says that Hong Kong can refuse to transfer a suspected criminal to the United States if giving up the person “implicates” the “defense, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy” of the People’s Republic of China.
Given the touchy nature of China’s relationship with the United States and Hong Kong, however, experts said the Chinese government is likely to stay in the background with Snowden’s case.
Top officials from the Justice Department, the FBI and the National Security Agency will appear Tuesday in front of House members to discuss the NSA’s surveillance efforts and the fallout from the leaks. The Senate will hold a similar closed hearing on Thursday.
Washington Post staff writers Jia Lynn Yang in Hong Kong, Liu Liu in Beijing, Sari Horwitz, Julie Tate, Barton Gellman, Jenna Johnson, Peter Hermann, Marc Fisher and Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.