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Contractor Arrest Raises Questions About NSA Security Post-Snowden


There are still more questions than answers about the latest NSA contractor charged with stealing government secrets. Harold Thomas Martin is in custody. When the FBI raided his home, they found classified documents - lots of them. And that brings up an obvious question. How could this have happened three years after Edward Snowden? NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: After Snowden exposed details of top secret programs to the world, the National Security Agency focused its considerable resources on a goal - never allowing such an internal breach to take place again.

So far there's no evidence that Martin shared the material he's accused of taking with journalists or with foreign spy services. But Chris Inglis, the NSA's former deputy director, says the case underscores a dilemma.

CHRIS INGLIS: So you want to make sure that you respect the people who work for you, and therefore you can only go so far in terms of how much you dog their individual efforts. But in so doing, you take a risk. Edward Snowden showed us that that harm occurs much faster with much higher import and leverage than we had imagined.

KELLY: Thus the changes set in motion since 2013. The National Security Agency declined to comment on the Martin case, leaving it to White House Spokesman Josh Earnest to field reporter questions on what's supposed to be the country's most secure agency and how it may again have fallen victim to an insider threat.

Earnest insisted security has been tightened, pointing to a new task force that monitors how agencies handle classified information - also to more stringent background checks.


JOSH EARNEST: For example, there's now a five-year reinvestigation requirement for all individuals with a security clearance.

KELLY: Meaning if you already have a security clearance, you have to requalify for it on a regular schedule. Earnest did not address the eternal dilemma for spy agencies that intrusive background checks tend to screen out many of the very candidates they need - people with native language skills, people who can move without attracting notice in places like Syria, Pakistan, Iran, Russia. Earnest focused instead on overall numbers.


EARNEST: Just in the last couple of years, we have succeeded in reducing the number of people that hold classified clearances by 17 percent.

KELLY: This is true. It's also a drop in the bucket. According to the director of National Intelligence, more than 4 million people still hold security clearances. More than 1.3 million are cleared for top secret access just like the NSA contractor Harold Thomas Martin. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.