C.I.A. Warning on Snowden in ’09 Said to Slip Through the Cracks

11.10.2013 16:57

WASHINGTON — Just as Edward J.
Snowden was preparing to leave
Geneva and a job as a C.I.A.
technician in 2009, his supervisor
wrote a derogatory report in his
personnel file, noting a distinct change
in the young man’s behavior and work
habits, as well as a troubling suspicion.
The C.I.A. suspected that Mr. Snowden
was trying to break into classified
computer files to which he was not
authorized to have access, and decided
to send him home, according to two
senior American officials.
But the red flags went unheeded. Mr.
Snowden left the C.I.A. to become a
contractor for the National Security
Agency, and four years later he leaked
thousands of classified documents. The
supervisor’s cautionary note and the
C.I.A.’s suspicions apparently were not
forwarded to the N.S.A. or its
contractors, and surfaced only after
federal investigators began scrutinizing
Mr. Snowden’s record once the
documents began spilling out,
intelligence and law enforcement
officials said.
“It slipped through the cracks,” one
veteran law enforcement official said
of the report.
Spokesmen for the C.I.A., N.S.A. and
F.B.I. all declined to comment on the
precise nature of the warning and why
it was not forwarded, citing the
investigation into Mr. Snowden’s
Half a dozen law enforcement,
intelligence and Congressional officials
with direct knowledge of the
supervisor’s report were contacted for
this article. All of the officials agreed to
speak on the condition of anonymity
because of the continuing criminal
In hindsight, officials said, the report
by the C.I.A. supervisor and the
agency’s suspicions might have been
the first serious warnings of the
disclosures to come, and the biggest
missed opportunity to review Mr.
Snowden’s top-secret clearance or at
least put his future work at the N.S.A.
under much greater scrutiny.
“The weakness of the system was if
derogatory information came in, he
could still keep his security clearance
and move to another job, and the
information wasn’t passed on,” said a
Republican lawmaker who has been
briefed on Mr. Snowden’s activities.
Mr. Snowden now lives in Moscow,
where he surfaced this week for the
first time since receiving temporary
asylum from the Russian government
over the summer. On Wednesday night,
he met with four American whistle-
blowers who have championed his case
in the United States and who presented
him with an award they said was given
annually by a group of retired C.I.A.
officers to members of the intelligence
community “who exhibit integrity in
In a television interview, one member
of the group, Jesselyn Radack, a former
Justice Department official, said that
Mr. Snowden “looked great.”
“He seemed very centered and
brilliant,” Ms. Radack said. “Smart,
funny, very engaged. I thought he
looked very well.”
Another of the whistle-blowers, Coleen
Rowley, a former F.B.I. agent who
testified before the Senate about
missteps in the agency’s investigation
of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said, “We
talked about prior examples of great
people in history that had themselves
been under this kind of pressure, and
he’s remarkably centered.”
On Thursday, Mr. Snowden’s father,
Lon, arrived in Moscow to see his son
after assurances from Mr. Snowden’s
legal aide that there would be “no
complications” in organizing a meeting
with his father. But in a telephone
interview later in the day, Lon
Snowden said he had not yet been able
to meet with his son.
“I can’t tell you the where and the
when,” the elder Mr. Snowden said. “I
have no idea. I hope something
It is difficult to tell what would have
happened had N.S.A. supervisors been
made aware of the warning the C.I.A.
issued Mr. Snowden in what is called a
“derog” in federal personnel policy
“The spectrum of things in your
personnel file could be A to Z,” said
Charles B. Sowell, who until June was a
top official in the Office of the Director
of National Intelligence working on
improving the security clearance
process. “There’s a chance that that
information could be missed and might
not be surfaced.”
Mr. Sowell, now a senior vice president
at Salient Federal Solutions, an
information technology company in
Fairfax, Va., emphasized that he left the
government before Mr. Snowden’s
disclosures became public.
Intelligence and law enforcement
officials say the report could have
affected the assignments Mr. Snowden
was given, first as an N.S.A. contractor
with the computer company Dell in
Japan and later with Booz Allen
Hamilton in Hawaii, as well as the level
of supervision he received.
The electronic systems the C.I.A. and
N.S.A. use to manage the security
clearances for its full-time and
contracted employees are intended to
track major rule-based infractions, not
less serious complaints about personal
behavior, a senior law enforcement
official said. Thus, lesser derogatory
information about Mr. Snowden was
unlikely to have been given to the
N.S.A. unless it was specifically
requested. As a result of Mr. Snowden’s
case, two law enforcement officials
said, that flaw has since been corrected
and such information is now being
pushed forward.
The revelation of the C.I.A.’s
derogatory report comes as Congress is
examining the process of granting
security clearances, particularly by
USIS, a company that has performed
700,000 yearly security checks for the
government. Among the individuals the
company vetted were Mr. Snowden
and Aaron Alexis, who the police say
shot and killed 12 people at the
Washington Navy Yard last month.
“We have a compelling need to monitor
those trusted with this sensitive
information on a more regular basis
and with broader sets of data,” said
Kathy Pherson, a former C.I.A. security
officer who belongs to an intelligence
industry task force that is expected to
issue a report on the matter by year’s
While it is unclear what exactly the
supervisor’s negative report said, it
coincides with a period of Mr.
Snowden’s life in 2009 when he was a
prolific online commenter on
government and security issues,
complained about civil surveillance
and, according to a friend, was
suffering “a crisis of conscience.”
Mr. Snowden got an information
technology job at the C.I.A. in
mid-2006. Despite his lack of formal
credentials, he gained a top-secret
clearance and a choice job under State
Department cover in Geneva. Little is
known about what his duties were
Mavanee Anderson, who worked with
Mr. Snowden in Geneva and also had a
high security clearance, said in an
article in The Chattanooga Times Free
Press of Tennessee in June that when
they worked from 2007 through early
2009, Mr. Snowden “was already
experiencing a crisis of conscience of
“Anyone smart enough to be involved
in the type of work he does, who is
privy to the type of information to
which he was privy, will have at least
moments like these,” she said.
Later, Mr. Snowden would tell the
newspaper The Guardian that he was
shocked and saddened by some of the
techniques C.I.A. operatives in Geneva
used to recruit sources. “Much of what
I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me
about how my government functions
and what its impact is in the world,” he
told The Guardian. “I realized that I
was part of something that was doing
far more harm than good.”
There were other signs that have since
drawn investigators’ attention. In
early 2009, someone using Mr.
Snowden’s screen name expressed
outrage at government officials who
leaked information to the news media,
telling a friend in an Internet chat that
leakers “should be shot.”
“They’re just like WikiLeaks,” Mr.
Snowden — or someone identified as
him from his screen name,
“TheTrueHOOHA,” and other details —
wrote in January 2009 about an article
in The New York Times on secret
exchanges between Israel and the
United States about Iran’s nuclear
He later told The Guardian he was
disappointed that President Obama
“advanced the very policies that I
thought would be reined in.”
“I got hardened,” he said.