More than 1,000 computer technicians at the National Security Agency, most of them contractors, have the same kind of access used by self-proclaimed whistleblower Edward Snowden to steal documents on NSA’s top secret data-gathering programs, the agency’s chief told lawmakers Tuesday.
“There are system administrators throughout NSA in all our complexes around the world,” Army Gen. Keith Alexander said in rare public testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“There is on the order of 1,000 system administrators — people who actually run the [computer] networks — who have, in certain sections, that level of authority and ability to interface with the systems,” Gen. Alexander said.
Most of them are contractors like Mr. Snowden, he added, in response to questions from Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat.
Mr. Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong this month before unmasking himself, used the computer access he had as a network administrator and took advantage of post-Sept. 11 information-sharing measures to obtain documents he has been leaking, Gen. Alexander said.
The NSA director and other senior law enforcement and intelligence officials testified Tuesday in an effort to reassure Americans about the limited and heavily overseen character of the NSA’s programs.
Some of the documents Mr. Snowden acquired, Gen. Alexander said, had been taken from “public” areas of the NSA’s classified network set up specially after the Sept. 11 attacks to encourage the sharing of information by intelligence analysts and others.
After 9/11, “one of the key things was, we went from the need-to-know to the need-to-share. And in this case, what the system administrator had access to is what we’ll call the public web forums that NSA operates” on its classified networks, the general said. On such forums are found documents, like those describing the NSA program code-named Prism that Mr. Snowden leaked, “that talk about how we do our business, not necessarily what’s been collected as a result of that.”
Systems administrators, he said, had access to generally accessible parts of the network.
“To get to any data like the [telephone metadata] business records … that we’re talking about, that’s in an exceptionally controlled area. You would have to have specific certificates to get into that,” he said.