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Posted at 5:05 PM ET, 04/15/2010

Government could read alleged NSA leaker's encrypted e-mails

By Jeff Stein

One has to wonder whether Thomas A. Drake, the former National Security Agency executive charged with leaking classified information to a reporter, reads Wired, the bible of the internet age.

If he does, he might have learned in November 2007 that the encrypted Hushmail accounts he allegedly set up to communicate secretly with the reporter wouldn’t protect him from the long arm of the feds.

It was in November 2007 that, according to a Post report on the government’s indictment, Drake ended his e-mail correspondence with the reporter, identified in other accounts as Siobhan Gorman, then with the Baltimore Sun.

Gorman, now with the Wall Street Journal, wrote a series of articles starting in 2005 about a $300 million NSA program that didn’t work.

“Relying on interviews with current and former senior intelligence officials as well as internal documents, Gorman was able to show that the NSA's ‘state-of-the art tool for sifting through an ocean of modern-day digital communications’ was a boondoggle of sorts -- and that the agency had removed several of the privacy safeguards that were put in place to protect domestic conversations and e-mails from being stored and monitored,” as Marc Ambinder nicely summed it up at The Atlantic Online Thursday.

Wired’s Ryan Singel reported in November 2007 that Canadian authorities had given the Drug Enforcement Agency access to supposedly break-proof e-mails in a steroids smuggling case, via a court order “obtained through a mutual assistance treaty between the U.S. and Canada.”

“Hushmail, a longtime provider of encrypted web-based email, markets itself by saying that ‘not even a Hushmail employee with access to our servers can read your encrypted e-mail, since each message is uniquely encoded before it leaves your computer,’” Singel reported on Wired’s Threat Level blog. He added:

But it turns out that statement seems not to apply to individuals targeted by government agencies that are able to convince a Canadian court to serve a court order on the company.

According to news reports, Drake allegedly established a Hushmail account to facilitate the exchange of e-mails with the reporter without disclosing his identity.

Gorman has been referring questions to the Wall Street Journal’s legal department. She has not been charged in the case.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a press advocacy group, charged that “the whole point of the prosecution is to have a chilling effect on reporters and sources, and it will.”

James Bamford, who has written three trailblazing books on NSA operations and misdeeds since 1980, said many questions remain unanswered about “what kind of investigation was done,” such as whether government agents tapped Gorman’s conversations with a court order or not.

“If they had his e-mails,” he said in a brief interview, “they wouldn’t need a separate subpoena for hers.”

Drake’s alleged complaints about NSA overspending in its "Trailblazer" program weren’t unusual, Bamford said.

“Plenty of people over the years have complained of waste, fraud and abuse in that program," he said.

By Jeff Stein  | April 15, 2010; 5:05 PM ET
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Next: CIA tape dump: Who's laughing how?


Hopefully, the publicity surrounding this case will make it common knowledge that ANY corporation will always roll over and give the government all of your private information.

For those who don't want any governments, mafias, or random corporate employees to read their mail, the solution is to use non-corporate, open-source, independently reviewed tools, such as TOR (for anonymity) and GPG (for privacy). Using these tools takes a little more skullsweat, but they're much more trustworthy than any closed corporate solution.

As an aside, the willingness of a senior NSA executive to trust Hushmail's advertising ("they're a reputable company -- if they say that even they can't read my e-mail, it must be safe") also perhaps speaks to an NSA culture that has lost too much of its old hard-edged nerdy paranoia.

Posted by: 12008N1 | April 16, 2010 12:32 AM | Report abuse

all traitors are treasones and should be shot

Posted by: pofinpa | April 16, 2010 6:43 AM | Report abuse

I'd like to think that a senior NSA executive would be a little more on the ball -- it's possible that by choosing Hushmail to leak, he had ulterior motives:

1) to point out what 12008N1 above did, that even companies whose business model is based on customer secrecy will roll over for the government, which is particularly relevant in light of what he was leaking, and

2) the whole process is now a part of the public record, available to anyone, thanks to the prosecution.

If you really want secrecy, don't communicate electronically.

Posted by: anonymouscowardtoo | April 16, 2010 7:34 AM | Report abuse

Interesting the political angle on this. This guy was basically, anti-trailblazer. Bush & his people were pro-trailblazer. So this guy was basically anti-Bush, but being nailed by Obama folks. I wonder what the current status of Trailblazer is.

This guy thought that he could out NSA the NSA, since he was a mid to high level NSA guy himself. Whispers on a park bench, or a cave in Asia are what NSA can't seem to break. Stupid stupid stupid.

Posted by: cyberfool | April 16, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

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