For too many Americans, the saga of Edward Snowden has become a vehicle to vent their understandable anger about the growth of government and its power to infringe on our privacy. But the leaker’s activities and his farcical flight to his current perch somewhere in the Moscow airport has allowed these worries to overshadow the true nature of what he has done in spilling so much information about the National Security Agency. Though his campaign to torpedo America’s ability to monitor terrorists should have already alerted even his most ardent fans to the true nature of his activity, his interview in this week’s issue of Der Spiegel is new proof that what he and his supporters in the press and elsewhere are attempting to do is something a great deal more ambitious than curbing the overreach of a government body. By discussing the cooperation of various foreign intelligence agencies and specifically talking about the joint efforts of the United States and Israel to thwart Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, he has crossed yet another line that shows his true intentions. His is not a war to protect privacy. It’s a war against intelligence and American foreign policy goals.
Snowden’s decision to expand his revelations from the NSA’s monitoring of calls and emails to Stuxnet—the computer virus that was reportedly employed to try to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program—is highly instructive. If Snowden’s leaks were solely about brushing back the spooks’ snooping on Americans, he might have refused to talk about the NSA’s efforts directed at Iran. By choosing to wade into specific intelligence efforts that have nothing to do with individual privacy issues, Snowden is making it clear that for all of the talk about his heroism or his defense of constitutional rights, what he is most interested in doing is making the world a little safer for those whom American intelligence is tasked with stopping. By treating the NSA’s work against Iranian nukes and its cooperation with Israel as fodder for his exposure as much as anything else, Snowden and his backers are treating a consensus objective of American policy as somehow illegitimate.
The link between the monitoring of phone calls or emails of terrorists and Stuxnet is that both are to some degree the fruit of America’s cyber warfare. But whatever concerns some Americans may have about the metadata mining of calls or emails, the Stuxnet virus and, indeed, the entire cyber warfare campaign against Iran have nothing to with privacy and everything to do with national security efforts that are supported by the overwhelming majority of the American people.
The point here is that the anti-intelligence campaign being waged by Snowden and his supporters draws no distinctions between alleged invasions of privacy and efforts to forestall a deadly nuclear threat to the world. While I believe the NSA’s controversial efforts to monitor communications with terrorists are defensible, there should be no argument about whether it’s work in cooperating with Israel to hamstring Iran’s nuclear weapons threat is both legal and absolutely necessary.
Moreover, those who would like to applaud Snowden’s exposures while still asserting their support for Western efforts to stop terrorism and the potentially genocidal intentions of Iran’s Islamist regime need to ask themselves whether they can really draw the line between intelligence operations they don’t like and those that they don’t wish to impede. If all of the NSA’s cyber warfare efforts are somehow illegitimate, as Snowden and his fans seem to be saying, then what they are asking for is not civil liberties but unilateral disarmament on the part of the West against terrorists and terrorist-sponsoring regimes like Iran that also wish to obtain nuclear weapons. Some of President Obama’s staffers (reportedly his favorite general) may have already spilled the beans on American cyber warfare to the press. But by discussing Stuxnet in the context of his attack on all cooperation between security agencies, Snowden has illustrated what we will lose if we allow our libertarian instincts about privacy to hamstring the NSA.