The military reportedly used a fake news story on Edward Snowden’s death to test its cybersecurity

American whistleblower Edward Snowden is seen on a screen as he delivers a speech during the Roskilde Festival in Roskilde, Denmark.

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American whistleblower Edward Snowden is seen on a screen as he delivers a speech during the Roskilde Festival in Roskilde, Denmark.
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Thomson Reuters

  • The military reportedly used a fake news story of Edward Snowden’s death to test out its cybersecurity.
  • “We actually had to shut down the operation,” a former US Marine said. “The phishing attack was too successful.”

The US Marine Corps reportedly used a fake news story of the death of Edward Snowden, the NSA cybersecurity whistleblower, to direct a phishing email attack on its own computers in 2013, a former Marine Corps captain said in a BuzzFeed News report.

In the report, Robert Johnston, who would later work for the private cybersecurity company that investigated the Democratic National Committee’s explosive malware attack in 2016, directed the Marine Corps’ Red Team, a term described as a “devil’s advocate” that challenges cybersecurity defenses.

US Navy SEALs react in recognition of contributions of former SEALS after a demonstration of combat skills at the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida November 12, 2011.

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US Navy SEALs react in recognition of contributions of former SEALS after a demonstration of combat skills at the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida November 12, 2011.
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REUTERS/Joe Skipper

Shortly after news of Snowden’s massive intelligence leak broke in 2013, in which Snowden leaked a trove of classified intelligence files from the National Security Agency, Johnston’s team reportedly sent out phishing emails to 5,000 service members.

Phishing emails ordinarily impersonate trustworthy sources to entice the recipient to divulge information or click on a dubious link.

The email contained an eye-catching subject line of “SEAL team six conducts an operation that kills Edward Snowden,” Johnston said in the report. The elite SEAL Team 6 is best known for the killing Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

“We actually had to shut down the operation,” Johnston said. “The phishing attack was too successful. The click rate was through the roof.”

The subject of Snowden’s leaks have evoked polarizing feelings, particularly for service members and veterans. Critics have assailed the former CIA employee for betraying the US, with some officials suggesting he may have even been in league with Russia; while others have labeled Snowden as a hero for bringing a light on controversial government surveillance methods.