A senior government official said without knowing the underlying probable cause presented to a federal judge from the FISA court in each case, Greenwald and The Intercept cannot know why the e-mails of the purported targets were collected.
As a result, the official said, Greenwald and Snowden cannot know whether the surveillance revealed evidence or intelligence in each case that was incriminating or exculpatory -- or whether some targets later cooperated with the FBI. Several officials said it was “irresponsible” to name individuals as surveillance targets when no public court record exists. The identified targets could be guilty or innocent or even cooperating with the government, the officials said.
"You don't know if somebody was later approached to become an informant," the senior official said. "To the extent any of these people were targets, [The Intercept report] is a serious compromise. And if they weren't targets, they shouldn't be named."
The Intercept said many of the emails on the spreadsheet titled “FISA Recap," which they said Snowden provided, “appear to belong to foreigners whom the government believes are linked to al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah.” But the report says their three-month investigation showed that “in practice, the system for authorizing NSA surveillance affords the government wide latitude in spying on U.S. citizens.”
However, current and former U.S. officials told ABC News that Snowden or Greenwald may have misunderstood some of the NSA documents, which they reported are spreadsheets with 7,485 email addresses, including many among multiple accounts by individuals.
"You should not assume all of the names Glenn Greenwald has were targets of surveillance," a senior official familiar with Snowden's pilfered cache told ABC News last week.
A former senior official once closely involved in the FISA warrant process told ABC News that The Intercept's reporters were repeatedly warned by him that they "were getting it wrong" in how they interpreted what the NSA spreadsheets from Snowden signified. The documents also were curiously absent of the markings secret files typically carry which denote its specific level of classification and distribution limitations.
"The documents indicated to me that they were not targets," the former official said.
Greenwald, who delayed his announced publication date last week by several days while seeking additional clarification from the U.S. government, reported the Department of Justice refused to comment and he was ultimately unable to determine under what legal authority the surveillance was conducted or whether the men were formally targeted under FISA warrants.