Famed NSA leaker Edward Snowden almost had me convinced of his sincerity. Until today, when he released damaging information about US spying on Russia’s former president, and offered up no explanation for how such revelations jibe with his earlier claims to be fighting for the American people.
You don’t go and help the Russians if your goal is fighting for the American people, unless you have a darn good reason, and Snowden has so far given none for today’s new leaks.
Now, some would ask, why discuss at all whether Snowden’s motives were genuine? His justification has no bearing on the shocking nature of the information Snowden released, particularly about the NSA’s PRISM program, and about the NSA forcing Verizon to turn over call information about its 121 million customers.
And that’s true. Those revelations stand on their own merits as to whether the NSA, and the Obama administration crossed a line.
But the issues that arise from the Snowden leak are not simply limited to whether the PRISM program was valid or not. Snowden is a proud self-proclaimed member of what I’m calling “Generation Wikileaks.” He’s representative of a younger, transparency-loving, globally-aware breed of citizen, among whom I count Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and Wikileaks.
Snowden clearly sees himself as part of a larger movement, and thus we should – we must – discuss whether that movement is moving in the right direction or not. And with Snowden, it now decidedly is not. And here’s why…
The Guardian today published a number of new classified leaks that it got from Snowden. They included the news that the US had intercepted then- Russian President Medvedev’s communications during the G20 Summit in London back in 2009. That the British were intercepting communications from foreign delegates to that summit. And that the British were planning to eavesdrop on members of their Commonwealth at an upcoming summit of those nations.
It’s not clear what any of those have to do with Snowden’s earlier justifications for his leaks. They don’t have anything to do with the NSA director lying to Congress. They don’t have anything to do with the President not closing down Gitmo. And they have nothing to do with the dangers the surveillance state pose to the privacy of Americans. They weren’t spying on Americans in today’s stories, they were spying on Russian leaders and diplomats, among others foreign officials. So Snowden’s earlier justifications for the leaks don’t seem to apply. Then why did he do it?
I suppose one could argue that all spying is wrong, and some have told me as much via Twitter. But I’d consider that a non-starter for a serious policy discussion. If you don’t think we have a need for America’s intelligence community then there’s little I can say to convince you otherwise. We do have a little light shed today on why Snowden leaked these additional stories to the Guardian. Snowden said the following during an online chat earlier today with the Guardian:
Second, let’s be clear: I did not reveal any US operations against legitimate military targets. I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses because it is dangerous. These nakedly, aggressively criminal acts are wrong no matter the target. Not only that, when NSA makes a technical mistake during an exploitation operation, critical systems crash. Congress hasn’t declared war on the countries – the majority of them are our allies – but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people. And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we’re not even fighting? So we can potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own Police? No, the public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the “consent of the governed” is meaningless.
There’s a lot to untangle in that statement. First off, “legitimate military targets.” I’m not even sure what that means. Russia is not a legitimate target for US spy efforts? It most certainly is. As for Snowden’s concerns for spy agencies accessing civilian infrastructure, it’s not entirely clear whether any of that applies to the new claims as well.
Among other things, Snowden says the British intelligence set up Internet cafes with an email interception program. Okay, and how does that violate civilian infrastructure? Same question applies to Snowden’s other new revelations, including the fact that the Brits penetrated the security on the delegate’s Blackberrrys, that they targeted the Turkish finance minister, and that they eavesdropped on Medvedev’s hone calls as they passed through a satellite.
Which of those things shouldn’t our spies being doing? Is Snowden alleging that the type of spying we did were rogue operations that were above the law? It’s not clear. But on its face, the suggestion that we shouldn’t be bugging the Russians’ phones seems a bit much to swallow.
And here’s where I really think Snowden lost me:
Congress hasn’t declared war on the countries – the majority of them are our allies – but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people…. And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we’re not even fighting?
So now Snowden thinks we should only spy on countries we’re at war with? Who are we technically at war with? North Korea? Anyone else? That makes for a pretty small list. Even if what he really means is de facto wars like Afghanistan and Iraq, again, that’s a rather small list. Can we spy on Iran? How about Syria? How about Cuba? How about China?
It almost sounds as if Snowden objects to the entire notion of spying. And if that’s the case, then why did he go to work at the CIA and the NSA in the first place if he’s morally repulsed by the notion of spying generally, and on Russia in particular?
And actually, there’s this too from Snowden today:
Obama’s campaign promises and election gave me faith that he would lead us toward fixing the problems he outlined in his quest for votes. Many Americans felt similarly. Unfortunately, shortly after assuming power, he closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge.
So he leaked information about our spying on the Russians because President Obama refused to prosecute Bush administration torture and push harder for closing Gitmo. That’s a non sequitur, it’s not a rationale for exposing state secrets.
Josh Marshall wrote a great piece last week, looking at Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and the burgeoning culture of leaks. Here’s a snippet:
I’m a journalist. And back when I did national security reporting I tried to get leaks. So I don’t think leaks are always wrong. I think the government and journalists both have legitimate interests that point in very different directions. In fact, leaks are an absolutely critical safety valve against government wrongdoing and/or excessive secrecy. But when someone in government leaks classified information they’re breaking an oath and committing a crime. That’s a big deal. Sometimes though the importance of what’s leaked justifies the act morally if not legally. That is often the case. And that’s one reason that while I think the laws against disclosure should be in place I also think it’s imprudent for the government to try too hard to enforce them. I do not see how you can’t prosecute Snowden since he’s revealed himself publicly. And leaks should sometimes be investigated. But in most cases it’s not worth snooping on journalists to try to find the culprit. The costs outweigh the gains. Because of that, it’s really impossible to say leaks are good or bad in general. It’s also true that people can leak information for petty or even evil reasons but the leak still serves a positive public purpose. Leaks are complicated. I think we know that. And being morally right doesn’t necessarily get you off the hook for committing a crime….
Snowden is doing more than triggering a debate. I think it’s clear he’s trying to upend, damage – choose your verb – the US intelligence apparatus and policieis he opposes. The fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone doubts that narrow point. But he’s not just opening the thing up for debate. He’s taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me that’s a betrayal. I think it’s easy to exaggerate how much damage these disclosures cause. But I don’t buy that there are no consequences. And it goes to the point I was making in an earlier post. Who gets to decide? The totality of the officeholders who’ve been elected democratically – for better or worse – to make these decisions? Or Edward Snowden, some young guy I’ve never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don’t agree with and is now seeking refuge abroad for breaking the law?
I don’t have a lot of problem answering that question.
Individual conscience is always critical. But when it comes to taking a stand on conscience it’s not just the thought that counts. You put yourself to the judgment or the present and the future about whether you made the right judgment.
I just can’t accept the argument that it’s okay to leak classified information simply because the leaker thinks it’s justified, especially when he’s being set up as some kind of role model for future national security whistleblowers. You’d better have a darn good reason if you’re going to leak national security secrets, and break some major laws, while running the risk of endangering our national security.
And at this point, with these new revelations, it’s no longer clear what is motivating Edward Snowden, other than animus. And that’s not good enough to justify the actions of a man who’s starting to look less and less like Daniel Ellsberg with each new revelation.