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

April 18, 2010

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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