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Investigators still do not know if the FISA system has been compromised, or if Edward Snowden was the source of the Verizon warrant published by the ‘Guardian.’ Eli Lake reports. 

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA, pictured in Hong Kong, revealed details of top-secret surveillance conducted by the U.S. National Security Agency regarding telecom data. (The Guardian via Getty)

Those who receive the warrant—the first of its kind to be publicly disclosed—are not allowed “to disclose to any other person” except to carry out its terms or receive legal advice about it, and any person seeing it for those reasons is also legally bound not to disclose the order. The officials say phone companies like Verizon are not allowed to store a digital copy of the warrant, and that the documents are not accessible on most NSA internal classified computer networks or on the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, the top-secret internet used by the U.S. intelligence community.

The warrants reside on two computer systems affiliated with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the National Security Division of the Department of Justice. Both systems are physically separated from other government-wide computer networks and employ sophisticated encryption technology, the officials said. Even lawmakers and staff lawyers on the House and Senate intelligence committees can only view the warrants in the presence of Justice Department attorneys, and are prohibited from taking notes on the documents.



“The only time that our attorneys would have gotten to read one was if Justice Department lawyers came over with it in a secure pouch and sat there with them when they read them,” said Pete Hoekstra, a former Republican chairman and ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.  “There was never one in the intelligence-committee spaces, never one left there without someone from the Justice Department. It would not have been left there overnight.”

U.S. intelligence officials were careful to say investigators have not yet concluded there is a mole inside the FISA Court or that the secure databases that store the court warrants have been compromised, only that both prospects were under active investigation.

If the secret court has been breached, it would be one of the most significant intelligence failures in U.S. history, potentially giving America’s adversaries a road map to every suspected agent inside the United States currently being watched by the FBI, according to the officials. Unlike the Verizon order and other such sweeping collection demands that have been received by internet and telecom companies, many FISA warrants identify a specific individual or entity being monitored by the U.S. government.

“If we have a human or electronic breach in this system it could be a counter-intelligence disaster. It would allow our adversaries to see what we are targeting and how,” said Joel Brenner, a former inspector general and senior counsel for the NSA who left the agency in 2010.

“If they got access into the database or mainframe that the warrants are housed in, this compromises our country’s most closely guarded ongoing investigations,” Hoekstra said. “This would be like Aldrich Ames,” referring to the CIA officer who told the Soviet Union about moles inside the USSR working for the United States for nearly a decade, with several of the operatives he outed arrested and executed by the Soviets. “This would be breathtaking.”

Stewart Baker, a former general counsel to the NSA, just said such a breach would be “very bad.”

The leading suspect in the leak of the FISA court warrant is Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old NSA contractor who announced himself earlier this month as the source of NSA documents leaked to the Washington Post and the Guardian. Snowden, however, has not acknowledged being the source of the FISA court warrant. When asked on ABC News earlier this month to speak more about his source’s motivations, Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the first stories for the Guardian, said, “Well, first of all, I am not going to confirm that there is only one individual, there could be one or more than one.”


‘This would be like Aldrich Ames. This would be breathtaking.’

A U.S. intelligence official with knowledge of the current investigation said Snowden would not be able to access a court warrant by himself. “This is not something, even if you are a contractor and you work for an intelligence agency like NSA, that you are going to be able to get a hold of,” this official said of the FISA warrant. ABC News first quoted law-enforcement sources last week saying that Snowden would not have access to the FISA warrant in his job as a system administrator employed by contractor Booz Allen Hamilton working for the NSA.

When asked if Snowden had more such warrants on Thursday, Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said, “Candidly, nobody really knows the answer to that today. I think we will know the answer to that shortly.”

A U.S. intelligence official on Monday told The Daily Beast that investigators still did not know how many other FISA court warrants, if any, might make their way into the public eye, or if Snowden was the source of the Verizon document and, if so, whether or not he was working alone.

If the court has been compromised, it would not be the first breach of FBI surveillance targets inside the United States. In April, quoted Microsoft's Dave Aucsmith, the senior director of the company's Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments, saying a 2009 hack of major U.S. Internet companies was a Chinese plot to learn the targets of email and electronic surveillance by the U.S. government. In May, the Washington Post reported Chinese hackers had accessed a Google database that gave it access to years’ worth of federal U.S. surveillance records of counter-intelligence targets. But current and retired U.S. intelligence officials stressed that the government has jealously guarded access to FISA Court warrants, and doubted that they could have been obtained from the databases of U.S. Internet or telephone companies.

Spokespeople for the Justice Department, the FISA Court, Verizon, and the office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment for this story.