4 Unanswered Questions About NSA Spying Leaks

A government secrecy expert talks to ABC News about the NSA spying revelations.

ByABC News
June 7, 2013, 6:18 PM

June 8, 2013 — -- In the last week, the government has suffered major leaks of sensitive, top-secret documents that revealed details about the country's national intelligence-gathering programs.

Among those was a classified PowerPoint presentation obtained by The Washington Post that detailed a program code-named PRISM that the government reportedly used to sift through large amounts of data from major tech giants including Google, Apple and Microsoft relating to foreign suspects in terror investigations.

Another report revealed a court order granting the government permission to collect data on phone calls made by Verizon customers.

ABC News spoke to Marc Ambinder, co-author of "Deep State: Inside the Government's Secrecy Industry," about how the leaker could have done it and what may happen next.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview.

ABC News: How could someone manage to leak this kind of sensitive information?

Marc Ambinder: The first thing that caught my eye about the Powerpont document was "ORCON." It's a phrase that is put on classified documents to refer to the control mechanisms where the originator of the document is the controller -- meaning it's sensitive enough that I'm the only person who gets to decide who sees it.

Documents with that particular marking on it are always viewed in areas that are cleared for top-secret data. And you can't view the document, print the document or take a screen grab of the document without leaving an audit trail. Every document that they look at is recorded internally.

Someone could print out a document like that and walk out with it and even make a copy of it. But even making a color copy of it leaves a record or a trial.

ABC News: What kind of person would do this?

Ambinder: If the person who did this risked leaving a trail or clues that the government can find they are obviously very disturbed with the foundation on which the modern surveillance state rests and wanted to do something dramatic about it.

It's much easier to leak information that is classified as secret, but the government is obsessive about top-secret information.

No document like this has ever been leaked from the NSA. The NSA has its own counter-intelligence team known as the Q force whose job it is to work on preventing leaks like this.

I think there's one person or entity that's doing this [leaking both information about PRISM and the government's collection of phone data records].

If I were in the government trying to do this, I would try to recruit likeminded friends and try to circumvent the risk of the secrecy apparatus. It would be very difficult and dangerous. He or she took enormous risks to do this.

ABC News: But what about Bradley Manning? He was able to leak sensitive information in Wikileaks by slipping it out, essentially, on a thumb drive.

Ambinder: That was in a war zone and, at the time, flash drive and CD use were quasi-permitted. And the information was on a computer that was classified at the secret level.

Information at the top-secret level is on a completely different level. Top secret systems are completely different. They are internally monitored and watched much more carefully.

ABC News: What happens now? How will the government respond?

Ambinder: I don't blame the government for launching a leak investigation. From the government's perspective, documents involving top-secret information usually involve sources and methods whose revelation would significantly impact national security. Those are the types of things that are classified at this level.

The documents are time-stamped, so the government can figure out instantly the universe of 4,000 people who can see them at a particular time. They'll do what they do. They may polygraph 4,000 people, which is not unusual for them to do in leak investigations like that.

We will know the identity of the leaker before too long. The leaker, when caught, would be treated prosecutorially a lot harsher if they are caught -- even from Bradley Manning -- because the document was classified at a higher level.