Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's first leak is coming full circle.
Last month a US appeals court ruled the NSA's post-9/11 dragnet of millions of Americans' phone-call records is illegal, noting that a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) order "leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden" and published by The Guardian served as the catalyst for the decision.
The FISC order directed Verizon to produce to the NSA "on an ongoing daily basis ... all call detail records or 'telephony metadata' created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls."
The US government had justified the program by saying it was covered under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, but the court ruled that "the bulk telephone metadata program is not authorized by § 215."
On Monday, Section 215 and two other provisions of the Patriot Act expired — at least temporarily.
So for the first time since 9/11, partly thanks to Snowden, 31, the phone records of US citizens are not being scooped en masse under a law ruled illegal.
But the order comes from just one of as many as 1.77 million NSA documents Snowden allegedly stole while working at two consecutive jobs for US government contractors in Hawaii between March 2012 and May 2013. And he gave only an estimated 200,000 documents to American journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.
On June 9, 2013, four days after The Guardian published the Verizon order, Snowden revealed himself in a video before going underground to seek asylum.
Snowden's epic heist and search for asylum spans more than 10,000 miles, and there are a lot of blanks to fill in after Snowden decided to expose NSA spying.
Now that Snowden's first leak is vindicated, here's a look at three of the outstanding questions about his journey:
Whom did Snowden contact when he arrived in Hong Kong?
Snowden says he "clearly and unambiguously acted alone, with no assistance from anyone" — at least until Hong Kong.
"When Mr. Snowden came to Hong Kong from Hawaii in late May, he looked up a person whom he had met on a previous vacation here," The New York Times reported on June 24, 2013, the day after Snowden flew from Hong Kong to Moscow.
Albert Ho, one of Snowden's Hong Kong lawyers, told The Times the person was a well-connected Hong Kong resident and became Mr. Snowden's "carer."
Snowden told The Guardian that after the "very carefully planned and orchestrated" theft of NSA information, he didn't cover his traces in Hong Kong.
"I only tried to avoid being detected in advance of travel ... on the other side I wanted them to know where I was at," Snowden said. "I wanted them to know."
In his book, Glenn Greenwald wrote that Snowden "arrived in Hong Kong from Hawaii on May 20, checking into the Mira Hotel under his own name."
Where did Snowden spend the first 11 days?
Edward Jay Epstein of The Wall Street Journal, however, went to Hong Kong and reported that Snowden didn't check into the Mira Hotel until June 1, a couple of days before he met Poitras and Greenwald.
"Mr. Snowden would tell Mr. Greenwald on June 3 that he had been 'holed up' in his room at the Mira Hotel from the time of his arrival in Hong Kong. But according to inquiries by Wall Street Journal reporter Te-Ping Chen, Mr. Snowden arrived there on June 1," Epstein reported.
"I confirmed that date with the hotel's employees," Epstein wrote." A hotel security guard told me that Mr. Snowden was not in the Mira during that late-May period and, when he did stay there, he used his own passport and credit card."
Epstein also cited a source familiar with the Defense Intelligence Agency report on the Snowden affair, writing that "US investigative agencies have been unable to find any credit-card charges or hotel records indicating his whereabouts" between May 20 and June 1.
What exactly happened to the documents Snowden didn't give to journalists?
After checking out of the Mira Hotel on June 10, Ho said, Snowden accepted an invitation to stay in the home of one of his carer's friends.
On June 12, Snowden showed The South China Morning Post (SCMP) an unknown number of documents revealing "operational details of specific [NSA] attacks on [Chinese] computers, including internet protocol (IP) addresses, dates of attacks, and whether a computer was still being monitored remotely."
Snowden told Lana Lam of SCMP that he possessed more NSA intel.
"If I have time to go through this information, I would like to make it available to journalists in each country to make their own assessment, independent of my bias, as to whether or not the knowledge of US network operations against their people should be published."
Eleven days later, Snowden got on a plane to Moscow.
In October 2013, James Risen of The Times reported that Snowden told him over encrypted chat that "he gave all of the classified documents he had obtained to journalists he met in Hong Kong." (ACLU lawyer and Snowden legal adviser Ben Wizner subsequently told me that the report was inaccurate.)
Snowden would later tell NBC that he "destroyed" all documents in his possession before he spoke with the Russians in Hong Kong.
"The best way to make sure that for example the Russians can't break my fingers and — and compromise information or — or hit me with a bag of money until I give them something was not to have it at all," he told Brian Williams of NBC in Moscow in May 2014. "And the way to do that was by destroying the material that I was holding before I transited through Russia."
More to come
Snowden, who appears via video conference semi-frequently, has not explained these discrepancies yet.
In the meantime, as the effects of Snowden's leaks reverberate in the US and the world, the saga continues.
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