'I Have Been to the Darkest Corners of Government, and What They Fear is Light'
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“I’m willing to do what I have to do to report this,” I said. The source -- whose name, place of employment, age, and all other attributes were still unknown to me -- asked if I would come to Hong Kong to meet him. I did not ask why he was there; I wanted to avoid appearing to be fishing for information and I assumed his situation was delicate. Whatever else was true, I knew that this person had resolved to carry out what the U.S. government would consider a very serious crime.
“Of course I’ll come to Hong Kong,” I said.
We spoke online that day for two hours, talking at length about his goal. I knew from the emails Laura had shown me that he felt compelled to tell the world about the massive spying apparatus the U.S. government was secretly building. But what did he hope to achieve?
“I want to spark a worldwide debate about privacy, Internet freedom, and the dangers of state surveillance,” he said. “I’m not afraid of what will happen to me. I’ve accepted that my life will likely be over from my doing this. I’m at peace with that. I know it’s the right thing to do.” He then said something startling: “I want to identify myself as the person behind these disclosures. I believe I have an obligation to explain why I’m doing this and what I hope to achieve.” He told me he had written a document that he wanted to post on the Internet when he outed himself as the source, a pro-privacy, anti-surveillance manifesto for people around the world to sign, showing that there was global support for protecting privacy.
“I only have one fear in doing all of this,” he said, which is “that people will see these documents and shrug, that they’ll say, ‘We assumed this was happening and don’t care.’ The only thing I’m worried about is that I’ll do all this to my life for nothing.”
“I seriously doubt that will happen,” I assured him, but I wasn’t convinced I really believed that. I knew from my years of writing about NSA abuses that it can be hard to generate serious concern about secret state surveillance.
This felt different, but before I took off for Hong Kong, I wanted to see some documents so that I understood the types of disclosures the source was prepared to make.
I then spent a couple of days online as the source walked me through, step by step, how to install and use the programs I would need to see the documents.
I kept apologizing for my lack of proficiency, for having to take hours of his time to teach me the most basic aspects of secure communication. “No worries,” he said, “most of this makes little sense. And I have a lot of free time right now.”
Once the programs were all in place, I received a file containing roughly twenty-five documents: “Just a very small taste: the tip of the tip of the iceberg,” he tantalizingly explained.
I unzipped the file, saw the list of documents, and randomly clicked on one of them. At the top of the page in red letters, a code appeared: “TOP SECRET//COMINT/NO FORN/.”
This meant the document had been legally designated top secret, pertained to communications intelligence (COMINT), and was not for distribution to foreign nationals, including international organizations or coalition partners (NO FORN). There it was with incontrovertible clarity: a highly confidential communication from the NSA, one of the most secretive agencies in the world’s most powerful government. Nothing of this significance had ever been leaked from the NSA, not in all the six-decade history of the agency. I now had a couple dozen such items in my possession. And the person I had spent hours chatting with over the last two days had many, many more to give me.