France is reeling from disclosures that the U.S. government spied on its leaders. Officials wonder if the docs came from a leaker other than Edward Snowden, who is seen above on copies of Wired magazine. (Mike Mozart/Flickr Creative Commons photo)
Is there a new Edward Snowden?
Reuters reported Wednesday that American and European intelligence officials are looking into the possibility that a new person with security ties may have leaked a cache of documents that detailed the National Security Agency’s (NSA) eavesdropping on several former French leaders.
The documents, published earlier in the week by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, detailed the NSA’s collection of the conversations of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac between 2006 and 2012. The documents also feature conversations purportedly by current French president Francois Hollande.
The NSA released a statement this week saying it was not spying on Hollande. In a phone conversation Wednesday, President Obama reiterated an assertion that American intelligence operatives were not targeting the current French president. Neither the NSA nor the White House commented on prior surveillance initiatives against France.
The news prompted cautioned anger from French government officials, with Hollande stating that his government “would not tolerate” American surveillance initiatives against them.
The disclosures, though new, were hardly surprising: Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden shed light on some of America’s spy actions against foes and friends alike, most notably the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The disclosures, which have trickled out since the first news reports were published on them in June 2013, have created, at times, frosty relations between America and its allies.
But there are signs that the documents published by WikiLeaks and written about in two French publications may not have come from Snowden: Two people familiar with the documents Snowden took told Reuters that they had not seen the papers published by WikiLeaks among the documents handed out by Snowden.
Snowden is living under political asylum after fleeing the United States two years ago. He exposed himself as the whistleblower behind a handful of leaks in The Guardian newspaper, and most disclosures about America’s surveillance initiatives — specifically those by the federal government, and often those of the NSA — are usually attributed to him.
If it is true that another person is responsible for the French surveillance leaks, it would not be the first time investigators focused in on a person other than Snowden. Last year, Yahoo! News reported that the FBI had identified an employee of a federal contracting firm who was suspected of handing over a new series of documents to journalists, including one that detailing the government’s clandestine terrorism tracking system. That news broke last October, and there have been no additional reports about it since.
Authorities in Washington reportedly told Reuters that the documents reported on in French media and by WikiLeaks this week may have still come from Snowden, and that he hasn’t been ruled out as a suspect. But people close to Snowden say the whistleblower tried to avoid giving documents directly to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, choosing instead to distribute them to journalists and news organizations.
WikiLeaks has provided some assistance to Snowden since 2013, but that assistance usually does not involve publishing the documents he took.
The New York Times noted the documents published this week appear to predate Snowden’s own collection. It was not immediately clear based on the documents published by WikiLeaks whether they were obtained from an American source or a foreign source, although at least one intelligence historian suspects another leaker from inside the walls of the NSA may be responsible.
“If it’s a second leaker, it’s a nightmare for the agency,” Matthew M. Aid told the Times.