Steven Bay has held his secrets and his struggles close for nearly four years now.
Bay was Edward Snowden’s boss in June of 2013 when Snowden, who joined Bay’s team just two months earlier at a National Security Agency outpost in Hawaii, downloaded and stole terabytes of classified data. Snowden fled the country and handed that data over to media organizations, exposing highly-sensitive U.S. Intelligence programs to allies and enemies alike.
Former NSA and CIA Director, General Michael Hayden has characterized Snowden here in The Cipher Brief, as being the man responsible for the greatest hemorrhaging of legitimate American secrets in the history of the Republic.
And for more than three and a half years, Steven Bay has asked himself what he could have done differently. What should he have seen at the time? And what – in hindsight – he should have been thinking when Snowden repeatedly asked for access to programs he did not have access to.
Bay reached out to me a few months ago. He described himself as an avid reader of The Cipher Brief and said that he was tired of mischaracterizations about Edward Snowden finding their way into popular media. He was tired of Snowden being portrayed as a hero and wanted people to know about the other heroes, some of them government employees and some of them contractors, who work hard and responsibly to protect America’s secrets. Though he had never shared details of the personal struggles that he and his family had gone through, he wanted to sit down with The Cipher Brief, because he had something to say.
We met in California and I listened for about three and a half hours as he shared details from a personal perspective that I had never heard before, telling me what happened in those days, months and eventually, years, after Snowden went missing.
Bay was a manager for a National Security Agency contractor in June of 2013. He is a practicing Mormon, husband, and father of four kids. It wasn’t unusual for him to be in church, and by his account, that’s where he was when he first got news that something had gone terribly wrong with Edward Snowden.
Snowden had gone missing a few days earlier. He told Bay that he had epilepsy and had to be out of the office for tests. He called Bay after a few days and let him know that the tests had not gone well and that he would be out for longer. Bay encouraged him to go ahead and sign up for short-term disability, so he could be paid while he focused on getting better, and Snowden said he would, after earlier objecting.
Then all contact just stopped. Bay worried that Snowden might be dead somewhere in Hawaii. At the same time, he and his colleagues were on edge because of leaked details about highly-sensitive government programs. Wouldn’t it be a nightmare, they half-joked, if somehow Snowden was the source of the leaked information.
Sitting in a church leadership meeting on June 9, 2013, Bay felt his phone vibrate. The text from a friend simply read, ‘It looks like your worst nightmare came true.’
As the details rolled in, Bay struggled to keep his composure. He was realizing that his employee had been the source of what was likely the most serious breach of U.S. security in decades. The panic-stricken thoughts started flooding into his head.
“You know, every negative thought you can have in the world about what can possibly go wrong – ranging from selfish thoughts, like ‘I’m going to lose my job, I’m going to go to jail, I’m going to lose my family, I’m going to be his fall guy because I was the boss who hired him, to what happens to my employees and their jobs, what happens to Booz Allen, and how does this affect the Agency? You know, just a million facts come dumping down on my shoulders,” said Bay.
The first calls starting coming from Booz Allen. His bosses wanted to know when Snowden had been hired, how long he had been with the company, and what kind of job had he held? It was part of a frantic rush to determine just how much worse the leaks were going to get.
“In the middle of the day I got a call from NSA Security and they wanted to talk, and I ended up going to meet with the FBI somewhere in Oahu,” Bay told me.
He was expecting to be spending the night under bright lights, being raked over the coals and asked to remember every detail. It turned out that FBI Investigators left the lights behind and focused instead on everything that Bay could remember about Snowden.
Bay had worked the closest with him in the office, and as his boss, Snowden came to him with questions. Including questions about a database that Snowden didn’t have access to.
‘The office he was assigned to at the agency in Hawaii, wasn’t authorized to view FISA or PRISM data, so he didn’t actually have access to that data. So he came to me once asking me, ‘Well how do I get…can I get this data? How can I?’” said Bay.
PRISM was a highly classified data surveillance program run by the NSA.
Bay says he believed that given Snowden’s job, he probably should have had access to some of the data, but he didn’t. That may have been the reason why, two weeks later, when Snowden came asking for access yet again, the request didn’t set off alarm bells with Bay. After all, Snowden had a security clearance. He was a trusted employee, and it made sense to Bay, knowing what he did, that access might be able to help Snowden do his job better.
Bay recounts that he didn’t think much of it a little while later when Snowden again asked for access to the program using an internal messaging platform.
“He essentially asked me, ‘Hey, what is this file? What is this source?’ And I briefly explained it to him at a high level, and he said, ‘Well, can I get access to that?’ And I said, ‘Well no you can’t, you have to go through training and your office has to be authorized for it – kind of like we talked about earlier.’ And then, I don’t remember doing any of this, it was through the Agency’s investigation that they presented it all to me, so I have no actual real recollection of this, but apparently I copied and pasted some of the content of this particular intelligence and put it in a Word document and sent it to him. So it didn’t give any sources and methods, information like that, and it did pertain to his job, but it was certainly something I shouldn’t have done.”
Without access to the official investigation, it’s hard to tell how much that one mistake may have contributed to Snowden’s ability to eventually gain the access he did to classified details of the program. Bay also wonders whether Snowden was able to combine access he had from a former job as a systems administrator, to gain the access he so desperately wanted.
He’s spent plenty of sleepless nights trying to piece it all together and says that while he has very little evidence to support it, he wonders whether Snowden had been coached to apply for the job that Bay had advertised, either by a foreign power, or by the journalists he ultimately released information to, as a calculated way to try and gain that access.
“It wasn’t all of a sudden he joined Booz Allen, he gets access to intelligence and all of a sudden says, ‘Wow, this is a crime against humanity. I need to get this all out there.’ Nobody makes that decision in a month and a half and then actually executes it,” Bay said. “It is pretty evident to me that he had been planning this for years. I suspect perhaps back as early as 2007, 2008, when he was, I believe, out in Japan.”
Bay says he cooperated fully with the investigation and was put on temporary leave but cleared of any wrongdoing, other than making that one mistake. About two months after Snowden disappeared, Bay’s access to the Agency was removed. He was eventually given part of that access back.
Nonetheless, the experience was a devastating personal blow to a man who worked hard to live by the book. He cooperated with authorities, acknowledged his mistake, and thought he could handle the stress that came with what Snowden had done. But the experience left a trail of damage in both his professional and personal life.
“It’s definitely affected my family and affected me. It’s been touch and go at times,” said Bay.
The stress is compounded by the fact that Snowden remains active in the media, speaking from Russia, which has granted him asylum. Snowden has been portrayed by some as a hero, but Bay says it’s hard for him to watch the news without wondering the true extent of Snowden’s actions.
“Anytime there is a security incident, whether it is a terrorist bombing or something I read about in the Intelligence Community, I ask myself, I wonder if the things that Snowden has leaked had any impact on that, and kind of evaluate those things.”
With no further access, Bay has been doing amateur detective work on his own to try and piece together Snowden’s public statements with facts he knows to be true.
“I am confident, based upon the things he said, and in the reports that have came out and in his interviews, that he never understood the PRISM program or the other programs similar that have been revealed. He never understood the protections around them: What type of data was in there, how we use that data, how the Agency governed that data. I think there was a lot of ignorance there in that regard, so I always found it a bit disingenuous when he comes out and kind of portrays himself as an expert on these programs, when he never actually had access to them and really didn’t have the data and never really played around with them,” said Bay. “I do believe he’s committed major crimes. I believe that he betrayed our country. I understand the altruistic arguments that he makes about domestic security and domestic surveillance. I too, like most people working in the Intelligence Community, believe you have to weigh the benefits between security and freedom.”
A couple of years after Snowden stole the data and fled the country, Bay was scrolling through his phone and stumbled across the name Edward Snowden in his contact list. He looked at the number and thought for a moment about what he would do if he ever saw his former employee again.
“You know, I think early on, when it first broke, I thought I’d just walk up and punch him in the face,” says Bay.
Today, his reaction is less emotional and more intellectually curious. He says he’d love to know what led Snowden to do what he did, and he’d love to know, like many, what Snowden has been doing in Russia for the past three years.
“If the roles were reversed, and a Russian Intelligence Analyst took gigabytes and terabytes of data, fled to the U.S. and asked for asylum, the CIA is not just going to put him up in an apartment in Arlington. He would maybe magically have a roommate, probably a CIA guy, and the CIA next door taping everything and say, ‘Your price of admission is the goods.’’
Today, Bay remains a strong supporter of government contracting and insists that the practice is essential to providing the government the skilled help it needs in order to stay ahead of emerging threats.
He’s putting his unique experience to use by setting up a consultancy to help private companies identify insider threats. He says the motivation behind launching stevenbay.com is to make sure others benefit from the painful lessons he learned from Edward Snowden.