The NSA was already on to Edward Snowden before his PRISM leaks went public

The NSA was already on to Edward Snowden before his PRISM leaks went public

In an unexpected twist to the PRISM scandal, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden came forward to identify himself to the world on Sunday, and further details continue to emerge, including the fact that authorities were already looking into him before any leaks were reported.

As revealed by the Guardian on Sunday, Snowden took a leave of absence on medical grounds before fleeing to Hong Kong as the Washington Post and Guardian both published reports exposing the Internet filtering system that the government allegedly installed to monitor overseas and US citizens. However, a new Washington Post article suggests that authorities were already investigating Snowden before the first leaks went public.

The Post admits that it did not stick to Snowden’s request to publish details 72 hours after he leaked them, and it instead “sought the views of government officials about the potential harm to national security prior to publication”. Indeed, it was a further two weeks before the investigative report went live.

It isn’t entirely clear, but that prior contact with authorities, coupled with the timing of Snowden’s leave of absence, may be why officials turned their attention to the Hawaii-based Booze Allen employee even before details were in the papers.

Corresponding online with The Post’s Barton Gellman right before the first expose was published, Snowden said:

“The police already visited my house [in Hawaii] this morning. It obviously has a profound and intimidating impact on my family.”

While we know authorities visited his family, it had been assumed that had taken place after the leaks, so to hear otherwise is interesting and it shows that the government had some lead time before PRISM went public.

Snowden was perhaps understandably jumpy fearing he had already been unearthed and — after the reporter contacted him through a new channel of communication and mistakenly using the wrong ‘digital fingerprint’ — he “responded in alarm”, concerned that his source at the paper had been compromised and the NSA had already tracked him down. It was, however, an error with the ‘fingerprint’, aka unique identification symbol used by Gellman.

Both Snowden’s immediate future and long-term fate remain unclear, but it is telling to learn that, even before his leak — let alone identity — had been unveiled, the NSA was already keeping close tabs on him. Leakers are so often in control of big stories, so it is unique to hear that the media had Snowden on the back foot.

Keep up with our coverage of PRISM here.

PRISM: Here’s what you need to know about the US Internet monitoring scandal

Headline image via Getty Images

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