NSA hacks China, NSA leaker Snowden claims
HONG KONG (CNN) — U.S. intelligence agents have been hacking computer networks around the world for years, apparently targeting fat data pipes that push immense amounts of data around the Internet, NSA leaker Edward Snowden claimed Wednesday to the South China Morning Post newspaper.
Among some 61,000 reported targets of the National Security Agency, Snowden said, are thousands of computers in China — which U.S. officials have increasingly criticized as the source of thousands of attacks on U.S. military and commercial networks. China has denied such attacks.
The Morning Post said it had seen documents but was unable to verify allegations of U.S. hacking of networks in Hong Kong and mainland China since 2009.
Snowden told the paper that some of the targets included the Chinese University of Hong Kong, public officials and students. The documents also “point to hacking activity by the NSA against mainland targets,” the newspaper reported.
In the Morning Post interview — published one week after the British newspaper The Guardian revealed the first leaks attributed to Snowden — he claimed the agency he once worked for as a contractor typically targets high-bandwith data lines that connect Internet nodes located around the world.
“We hack network backbones — like huge Internet routers, basically — that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.
Snowden, 29, worked for the Booz Allen Hamilton computer consulting firm until Monday when he was fired after documents he provided to journalists revealed the existence of secret programs to collect records of domestic telephone calls in the United States and the Internet activity of overseas residents.
While he has not been charged, the FBI is conducting an investigation into the leaks, and he has told The Guardian that he expects the United States will try to prosecute him.
Snowden told the Morning Post that he felt U.S. officials were pressuring his family and also accused them of “trying to bully” Hong Kong into extraditing him to prevent the release of more damaging information.
He vowed to resist extradition efforts if it comes to that, saying he “would rather stay and fight the United States government in the courts, because I have faith in Hong Kong’s rule of law.”
“My intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate,” the South China Morning Post quoted Snowden as saying. “I have been given no reason to doubt your system.”
But Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip, a former secretary of security for the territory, said Tuesday that while any extradition process could take months, Snowden isn’t necessarily beyond the reach of the United States.
“If he thought there was a legal vacuum in Hong Kong which renders him safe from U.S. jurisdiction, that is unlikely to be the case,” she said.
The newspaper said Snowden has been hiding in undisclosed locations inside the semiautonomous Chinese territory since checking out of his hotel room Monday — a day after he revealed his identity in an interview with The Guardian.
Snowden told the Morning Post he is not trying to evade U.S. authorities.
“People who think I made a mistake in picking Hong Kong as a location misunderstand my intentions,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality.”
On the defensive
The revelations have renewed debate over surveillance in the United States and overseas in the name of fighting terrorism, with supporters saying the programs revealed by Snowden are legal and have helped stop terror plots. Civil liberties advocates, however, call the measures dangerous and unacceptable intrusions.
Such criticisms have put President Barack Obama and his allies on the issue — both Democrats and Republicans — on the defensive against mounting criticisms from a similarly bipartisan group of critics demanding changes to rein in the programs.
Those differences will likely be on display Wednesday when the Senate Appropriations Committee holds a hearing into cybersecurity technology and civil liberties. Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, is among those scheduled to testify.
While not on the roster for Wednesday’s hearing, another administration official in the spotlight is Director of Intelligence James Clapper, whom Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden has singled out for how he answered questions about the telephone surveillance program in March.
In March, Wyden asked Clapper if the NSA collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
“No sir,” Clapper said.
On Saturday, Clapper told NBC News that he answered in the “most truthful or least most untruthful manner” possible.
He told NBC that he had interpreted “collection” to mean actually examining the materials gathered by the NSA.
He previously told the National Journal he had meant that “the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens’ e-mails,” but he did not mention e-mails at the hearing.
Meanwhile, the political and philosophical battle over the surveillance programs continued, in Congress and elsewhere.
House members from both political parties Tuesday raised concerns with administration officials who briefed the entire chamber on the government’s recently revealed top secret surveillance programs.
On Wednesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor promised “serious investigations into potential wrongdoing.”
“Over the past few weeks there have been stories after stories that have eroded the trust in our government,” he said. “And Americans shouldn’t really have to worry whether their government is going to hold their political beliefs against them, as it seems the IRS is doing, or whether their government is telling them the truth.”
Another Republican, Rep. Peter King of New York, said he believed the journalists involved in reporting stories about the surveillance programs should be investigated.
“If they willingly knew that this was classified information, I think actions should be taken, especially on something of this magnitude,” King, who leads the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterintelligence and Terrorism, told CNN’s “AC360°” on Tuesday.
“There is an obligation both moral, but also legal, I believe, against a reporter disclosing something which would so severely compromise national security,” he said. “As a practical matter, I guess there have been in the past several years a number of reporters who have been prosecuted” under the Espionage Act.
Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist who was the lead writer of the articles based on Snowden’s disclosures, said Monday that as an American citizen, he is guaranteed freedom of the press by the First Amendment.
“I intend to take the Constitution at its word and continue to do my job as a journalist,” he said.
As for Snowden, King said there’s no doubt he should face charges.
“I think what he’s done has been incredible damage to our country. It’s going to put American lives at risk,” he said.
The congressman did not provide specific examples of how the leaked information damaged national security but argued that it helps enemies of the United States.
But others, including liberal activist and filmmaker Michael Moore and conservative commentator Glenn Beck, have said Snowden is a hero for revealing the secret programs.