For those who’ve worked in the intelligence community, it’s not really much of a surprise that Edward Snowden had access to so much classified material and could pass along apparently thousands of documents. This is especially true since 9/11 because of the emphasis since then not to allow “stove-pipes” (that is, narrow, vertical chains of command and access to materials) to prevent analysts and others from connecting “the dots” from wherever the sources. And it’s no real surprise that someone this young but seemingly technically savvy would have the kind of clearances necessary to access that same material. The world of the NSA, and the contractors who support it, is filled with young men and women — many of whom are or once were enlisted military personnel — who may or may not have a college degree but have shown an aptitude for some element of NSA work.
All that said, we still don’t know (at least publicly) exactly what Snowden’s job was. So questions remain about whether he should have had access to the materials he passed along to the Guardian and the Washington Post. Or is there some “hole” in the NSA’s internal IT system that allowed him to get around and get to materials he should not have been able to see, let alone download?
But what is especially curious for those with some knowledge of the system and Snowden’s place in it was his ability to pass along the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court document ordering Verizon to turn over “on an ongoing daily basis [...] all call detail records” for communications between the US and abroad and here at home. FISA documents are some of the most closely-held pieces of paper in the government — or at least they used to be when I had oversight responsibilities for intelligence activities. And one could make a similar case for the PRISM materials he passed along detailing the surveillance program that apparently gathers intelligence from Facebook, Google, et al, by non-US persons believed to be living outside the United States.
So, how did Snowden get access to these materials? The most likely and mundane answer is that he took advantage of internal lapses in security, either of a technical or personal nature. Or, less likely, but still a possibility not to be overlooked, is that he was helped by someone else — an accomplice presumably still working within the NSA and NSA contractor system.