FBI Director Robert Mueller (L), Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (C) and CIA Director John Brennan testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on "Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States" on Capitol Hill in Washington March 12, 2013.
Matthew Aid of Foreign Policy has published an excellent report detailing the secret intelligence gathering partnership between the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Essentially, when the NSA cannot gain access to certain computers or gadgets, the spy agency calls on specially-trained CIA clandestine operators to physically bug, tap, or steal the information, often from foreign governments and military or multinational corporations.
Aid reports that these secret break-ins — referred to as "black bag jobs, " "surreptitious entries," or "off-net operations" — are occurring "at a tempo not seen since the height of the Cold War."
He notes that the specific nature and extent of the partnership is deemed to be extremely sensitive, "especially since many of these operations are directed against friends and allies" of the U.S.
Enter Edward Snowden.
According to Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, the t housands of documents that the NSA whistleblower/leaker stole would "allow somebody who read them to know exactly how the NSA does what it does, which would in turn allow them to evade that surveillance or replicate it."
Aid writes that the "one major concern" of U.S. intelligence officials is that "details of these [black bag] operations, including the identities of the targets covered by these operations, currently reside in the four laptops reportedly held by Edward Snowden. ... Officials at both the CIA and NSA know that the public disclosure of these operations would cause incalculable damage to U.S. intelligence operations abroad."
On May 20 Snowden arrived in Hong Kong from Hawaii with "four laptop computers that enable him to gain access to some of the US government's most highly-classified secrets," but it is unclear where Snowden's laptops currently are.
On the one hand, the former CIA technician's Hong Kong lawyer told The New York Times that the 30-year-old left China after he learned he could spend years in prison without access to a computer during the extradition process — suggesting that he may have kept his computers with him.
On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal reported that he did not have any luggage to check when he boarded a flight to Moscow on June 23.
Furthermore, it is unclear if the data has been or could be compromised.
In a letter to former U.S. Senator Gordon Humphreys published on Tuesday, Snowden stated:
"I have not provided any information that would harm our people – agent or not – and I have no intention to do so.
Further, n o intelligence service — not even our own — has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect. ... You may rest easy knowing I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture."
Former senior U.S. intelligence analyst Joshua Foust disputes that first claim, noting that the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported it " decided not to publish details it has seen about secret operations that could endanger the lives of NSA workers."
Nevertheless, as Aid notes, " If anyone wonders why the U.S. government wants to get its hands on Edward Snowden and his computers so badly," the fact that he may have access to the super secret NSA-CIA partnership "is an important reason why."
One thing to keep in mind is that Greenwald told Eli Lake of The Daily Beast "if anything happens at all to Edward Snowden, he told me he has arranged for [several people around the world] to get access to” the secret NSA archives.
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