The National Security Agency has not developed a comprehensive understanding of the magnitude of Edward Snowden's leak, in part because it has not detected a trail of digital "bread crumbs" he deliberately left, Snowden said.
In an extensive interview with Wired magazine,
the 31-year-old whistleblower who remains in exile in Russia, said he planted clues on the agency's networks that were meant to show which documents he had taken among the much larger set he had accessed or had access to.
"I figured they would have a hard time," Snowden said. "I didn't figure they would be completely incapable."
Snowden said intended to signal that he was a whistleblower rather than a foreign spy, but the NSA's public statements that he may have "accessed" as many as 1.7 million documents indicate that the agency either deliberately inflated the size of the leak or did not have the skills to see the clues he left for auditors, Wired reported.
Snowden's latest claims, however, conflict with early accounts he gave to former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who initially broke the story. In Greenwald's book, "No Place to Hide," he said Snowden claimed he could not have left a trace on the NSA's network due to its lack of audit controls.
He told Greenwald that he left behind some "footprints" to show NSA investigators that he had acted alone, but in the interview for Wired he went a step further in saying he intended those footprints to show exactly what he had taken and to allow the NSA to avoid further damage from his leaks.
"I think they probably didn't spot the bread crumbs," Snowden's lawyer, Jesselyn Radack, told Wired. "Even if they did get them, I think this [1.7 million] number is manufactured out of whole cloth to give the impression of a wholesale data dump. In fact, Ed very carefully selected exactly what he wanted to turn over and why."
A spokesman for the NSA refused to comment on Snowden's new claims, according to Wired, or give an internal estimate of the size of the leak.
"If Mr. Snowden wants to discuss his activities, that conversation should be held with the U.S. Department of Justice. He needs to return to the United States to face the charges against him," NSA spokesman Vanee Vines said in a statement.
Snowden said he believes the government fears the leaks are far worse than the reality.
"I think they think there's a smoking gun in there that would be the death of them all politically," Snowden told Wired. "The fact that the government's investigation failed — that they don't know what was taken, and that they keep throwing out these ridiculous huge numbers — implies to me that somewhere in their damage assessment they must have seen something that was like, 'Holy shit.' And they think it's still out there."
Snowden also discussed what he learned about U.S. cyber warfare while inside the agency, and how the agency used its extensive foreign hacking program.
In one case, Snowden said a division of NSA hackers brought down Internet access across Syria after it had attempted in 2012 to remotely install an exploit in one of the country's central routers. The public didn't know the United States was responsible for the country-wide Internet outage, a revelation revealed for the first time in the interview with Wired.
"If we get caught, we can always point the finger at Israel," Snowden recalled hearing an employee on the team joke, according to Wired.
His work also focused on potential cyber attacks from China, including institutions normally considered beyond the military's authority.
"It's no secret that we hack China very aggressively," he said. "But we've crossed lines. We're hacking universities and hospitals and wholly civilian infrastructure rather than actual government targets and military targets. And that's a real concern."
Snowden also flagged concerns about the government's MonsterMind cyber crime program. The program, he said, allowed the agency both to detect and prevent cyber attacks, but also to automatically fire back. The program had the potential to affect innocent third parties, and to work, the NSA had to secretly access virtually all private communications coming from overseas to people in the United States, Snowden said.
"The argument is that the only way we can identify these malicious traffic flows and respond to them is if we're analyzing all traffic flows," he told Wired.
"And if we're analyzing all traffic flows, that means we have to be intercepting all traffic flows. That means violating the Fourth Amendment, seizing private communications without a warrant, without probable cause or even a suspicion of wrongdoing. For everyone, all the time."
Snowden said he is not optimistic that the next election will bring reform of the surveillance system but believes technology will ultimately fulfill the role politicians fail to take in bringing about change.
"We have the means, and we have the technology to end mass surveillance without any legislative action at all, without any policy changes," he told Wired. "By basically adopting changes like making encryption a universal standard — where all communications are encrypted by default — we can end mass surveillance not just in the United States but around the world."
For the cover of the magazine, Snowden posed holding the American flag. He told Wired he still holds out hope that he will someday be able to return to the United States.
"I told the government I'd volunteer for prison, as long as it served the right purpose," he said. "I care more about the country than what happens to me. But we can't allow the law to become a political weapon or agree to scare people away from standing up for their rights, no matter how good the deal. I'm not going to be part of that."
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