Commentary Magazine


Topic: Edward Snowden

Putin’s Secrets and Lies

The irony of two newspapers, the Washington Post and the Guardian, winning a Pulitzer for Public Service for serving as a mouthpiece for Edward Snowden only gets richer. The only public service that Snowden is interested in performing, it seems, is to his new patron, Vladimir Putin, who runs an increasingly oppressive police state. Snowden just did a carefully scripted guest spot on one of Putin’s televised propaganda shows. 

The American traitor was beamed in via video link to obsequiously ask the Russian dictator: “Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals? And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies, rather than their subjects, under surveillance?”

This gave Putin the opportunity to give a highly disingenuous response designed to make his autocracy look better than our democracy:

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The irony of two newspapers, the Washington Post and the Guardian, winning a Pulitzer for Public Service for serving as a mouthpiece for Edward Snowden only gets richer. The only public service that Snowden is interested in performing, it seems, is to his new patron, Vladimir Putin, who runs an increasingly oppressive police state. Snowden just did a carefully scripted guest spot on one of Putin’s televised propaganda shows. 

The American traitor was beamed in via video link to obsequiously ask the Russian dictator: “Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals? And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies, rather than their subjects, under surveillance?”

This gave Putin the opportunity to give a highly disingenuous response designed to make his autocracy look better than our democracy:

Putin responded that Russia has a special service that bugs telephone conversations and Internet communications to fight crimes, including terrorism, but only with court permission and only “for specific citizens.”

“So, the mass character is something we do not have and cannot have,” Putin said in Russian. “On such a mass scale … we do not allow ourselves to do this, and we will never allow this. We do not have the money or the means to do that,” he said.

Uh, right. In fact, as the Washington Post notes, Putin’s answer was a blatant lie from start to finish. While there are in theory safeguards on surveillance in Russia, they are a mere formality which in no way inhibits Putin’s former employers at the FSB from spying on Russian citizens. “Russia even has its own version of PRISM, the clandestine mass electronic surveillance program that Snowden uncovered,” the Post notes. “It’s called SORM, and has been around since 1995. During Putin’s 14 years in Russian leadership, the scope of SORM has been expanded numerous times.”

It may be true that the Russia government is less advanced than the NSA in monitoring electronic communications, simply because Russia is not at the cutting edge of technology, but there is no question that its activities are more pervasive and more malign. While the NSA is only interested in intercepting terrorist communications or other threats to national security, the Russian state monitors potential or actual dissidents and clamps down on any opposition political activity. Those who challenge Putin’s power are liable to be locked up, exiled, silenced, or even killed. 

Yet Snowden, the supposed apostle of personal liberty, seems to have no problem shilling, like “Lord Haw Haw” or “Tokyo Rose” of World War II fame, for a dictatorship that oppresses its own people and invades neighboring countries. The only thing that could possibly make this situation any more nauseating would be if prominent Americans were to glamorize Snowden as a hero rather than the criminal and opportunist that he is. But that couldn’t possibly happen, could it?

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Edward Snowden, Putin Propagandist

Back in September, I described Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he lectured Barack Obama over Syria, as an example of Putin’s trollpolitik. He is an exceptional practitioner of concern trolling, and he has taken particular delight in criticizing Obama over his supposed military adventurism. Edward Snowden’s eastward defection with damaging American intelligence secrets was a boon to Putin’s trollpolitik.

Snowden’s defenders preferred to pretend he was a public servant; his leaks did, after all, win his correspondents the public service Pulitzer. But their arguments began to fall apart when Snowden made them look like fools by leaking all sorts of information that had nothing to do with Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights and everything to do with providing strategic advantages to the American adversaries who took turns hosting Snowden before Putin’s Russia gave him a more permanent home.

And now Snowden has further humiliated his defenders. Putin hosts an occasional call-in question-and-answer session with the public, often playfully referred to as the Putin telethon. Today’s edition featured a very special guest:

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Back in September, I described Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he lectured Barack Obama over Syria, as an example of Putin’s trollpolitik. He is an exceptional practitioner of concern trolling, and he has taken particular delight in criticizing Obama over his supposed military adventurism. Edward Snowden’s eastward defection with damaging American intelligence secrets was a boon to Putin’s trollpolitik.

Snowden’s defenders preferred to pretend he was a public servant; his leaks did, after all, win his correspondents the public service Pulitzer. But their arguments began to fall apart when Snowden made them look like fools by leaking all sorts of information that had nothing to do with Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights and everything to do with providing strategic advantages to the American adversaries who took turns hosting Snowden before Putin’s Russia gave him a more permanent home.

And now Snowden has further humiliated his defenders. Putin hosts an occasional call-in question-and-answer session with the public, often playfully referred to as the Putin telethon. Today’s edition featured a very special guest:

NSA leaker Edward Snowden put a direct question to Vladimir Putin during a live televised question-and-answer session Thursday, asking Russia’s president about Moscow’s use of mass surveillance on its citizens.

Speaking via a video link, Snowden asked: “I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance, so I’d like to ask you: Does Russia intercept, store or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals?”

Putin replied by stating Russia did not carry out mass surveillance on its population, and that its intelligence operations were strictly regulated by court orders.

“Mr Snowden, you are a former agent, a spy, I used to work for the intelligence service, we are going to talk one professional language,” Putin said, according to translation by state-run broadcaster Russia Today.

“Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law so…you have to get a court permission to stalk that particular person.

“We don’t have as much money as they have in the States and we don’t have these technical devices that they have in the States. Our special services, thank God, are strictly controlled by society and the law and regulated by the law.”

He added: “Of course, we know that terrorists and criminals use technology so we have to use means to respond to these, but we don’t have uncontrollable efforts like [in America].”

Edward Snowden: esteemed public servant by day, craven Putin propagandist … also by day. It’s a long day.

Much of Putin’s telethon, to judge by the translations offered by Putin’s more experienced propagandists at RT, was a mix of threats and spin. According to RT, Putin was asked if Russia would invade other parts of Ukraine to claim territory for Russia, as was done in Crimea. His response was a barely-veiled warning that he would be happy to take by intimidation rather than force. “The point is that with the understanding how important the force is, the states could develop and strengthen reasonable behavior rules in the international arena,” he responded.

The same transcript also gives readers a glimpse at the whiny, aggrieved brat lurking inside the ostentatious tough-guy façade (italics in the original):

Referring to the 2009 “Reset” in relations, Putin said the agreement ended after the US and NATO intervened in Libya and plunged the country into chaos.

“We believe this is not our fault. This double-standard approach always disappoints us. Behaving like the US did in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is allowed, but Russia is not allowed to protect its interests,” said Putin. He added that Russia was not trying to sour its relations with the EU and hopes this feeling is reciprocated.

The idea that all was well in U.S.-Russian relations until the spring of 2011 is utterly ridiculous, but this is standard fare from Putin. In fact, however, Putin’s own statement (if the translation is correct) refutes itself. It wasn’t really the intervention in Libya that ended the reset, Putin hints, because NATO has intervened before. It’s that, according to Putin, “Russia is not allowed to protect its interests,” despite NATO’s actions. What Putin wants is to be able to invade his neighbors at will. If he can’t do that, well then the reset is off. Which is why it was never really extant in the first place.

This agenda, of invading and destabilizing neighboring states, is what Snowden is propagandizing in service of. And Putin’s lies about domestic surveillance are what Snowden, who supposedly stormed off to China and Russia over his need to protest such actions at home, are what Snowden is helping to feed the Russian public. The real public service Snowden has done, then, is to make it clear just how much of a hypocrite and an authoritarian tool he really is.

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A Pitiful Pulitzer Pick

The Pulitzer Prize board has just managed to do the impossible. It has awarded a prize that deserves to be spoken of in the same conversation with its risible 1932 award to the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty for articles whitewashing the evils of Stalinist Russia.

The award of the Public Service prize to the Washington Post and the Guardian for serving as a mouthpiece for Edward Snowden is an attempt by the journalistic establishment to put its stamp of approval on the actions of one of the most destructive traitors in U.S. history—a former NSA contractor who has done untold damage to American intelligence gathering efforts against Russia, China, Al Qaeda, and other essential targets by revealing some of the most secret information that the U.S. government possesses. As Politico notes, this prize is “certain to be interpreted as a vindication of the former government contractor’s efforts.”

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The Pulitzer Prize board has just managed to do the impossible. It has awarded a prize that deserves to be spoken of in the same conversation with its risible 1932 award to the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty for articles whitewashing the evils of Stalinist Russia.

The award of the Public Service prize to the Washington Post and the Guardian for serving as a mouthpiece for Edward Snowden is an attempt by the journalistic establishment to put its stamp of approval on the actions of one of the most destructive traitors in U.S. history—a former NSA contractor who has done untold damage to American intelligence gathering efforts against Russia, China, Al Qaeda, and other essential targets by revealing some of the most secret information that the U.S. government possesses. As Politico notes, this prize is “certain to be interpreted as a vindication of the former government contractor’s efforts.”

Certainly that’s how Snowden sees it. In a statement typical of his nauseating and entirely unearned self-righteousness—released, it should be noted, from his current exile as an honored guest of Vladimir Putin’s police state—Snowden said: “Today’s decision is a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government. We owe it to the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation, including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws, and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop what the world now recognizes was work of vital public importance.”

Funny, if you didn’t know the context, you might think that Snowden is praising the efforts of dissidents in Russia who face jail terms or even death if they dare to tell the truth about how Putin represses dissent and mobilizes the public behind his dictatorial and expansionist agenda. But, no, of course Snowden wouldn’t dare to bite the hand that feeds him–even if that hand belongs to an increasingly repressive regime which labels as “traitor” anyone who dares question any aspect of the Kremlin’s agenda .

In reality, Snowden is heaping eye-rolling praise on his own efforts, and those of his journalistic collaborators, to cripple the legitimate and lawful intelligence gathering efforts of the NSA. The public, it goes without saying, had a role in government long before Edward Snowden came along. The public’s role in the U.S. government actually goes back to our Founding and has remained robust ever since. The public even has an important role in oversight of the intelligence community—a role assigned by our political system to Congress’s intelligence committees and the intelligence community’s in-house inspectors-general, not to twentysomething contractors with extreme an libertarian ideology and a messiah complex. 

For all his self-preening, Snowden did not actually disclose any activity by the NSA that was illegal or unauthorized; what he disclosed was wide-ranging collection efforts that had ample safeguards built in to prevent abuse. There is still no evidence that any of the intelligence-gathering activities of the NSA were directed for personal or political gain. 

Rather, these efforts have helped to keep the country safe from follow-on 9/11 attacks and other threats to our security. Now this important line of defense has been compromised, perhaps fatally, by Snowden’s illegal and unethical disclosures, most of which have focused not on intelligence gathering at home (which is admittedly controversial) but on intelligence gathering abroad in countries that regularly spy on the U.S. too—and which should not remotely be a cause for controversy unless you subscribe to Henry Stimson’s naïve and outdated conviction that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”

There is nothing remotely brave about publishing the most sensitive secrets of the U.S. government—an activity that is arguably protected by the First Amendment and that is unlikely ever to be prosecuted by a U.S. government which is rightly respectful of journalists’ rights. Nor is there anything remotely brave about disclosing those same secrets and then fleeing to exile in Russia rather than facing the consequences in a U.S. court. The word to describe such activities is not “brave” but, rather, “reprehensible.” And that is what the Pulitzer committee is rewarding.

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The Disturbing Pollard Debate

The decision of Secretary of State John Kerry to inject the question of Jonathan Pollard into his quest to keep Middle East peace negotiations alive was a complete and total fiasco. As I noted earlier today, not only was it a futile “Hail Mary” pass that was contemptuously torpedoed by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, even if both the PA and Israel had agreed to the terms of the proposed deal—which would have required Israel to free another batch of terrorist murderers and several hundred other security prisoners—it would have only meant continued negotiations with little hope that they will lead to an actual agreement.

The collapse of this effort is a great disappointment to those who have worked for Pollard’s release and a relief to those who want him to rot in jail. But the most disturbing element of this incident is not so much the latest proof of Kerry’s foolishness as it is the way that the discussion over Pollard has brought back to the surface the myths and misinformation about the case that come to the fore every time his name is in the news. Though advocates for his release are right to view Pollard’s sentence as excessive, much of what we have been hearing about him this week demonstrates anew the extent of the damage that he and his handlers did to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

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The decision of Secretary of State John Kerry to inject the question of Jonathan Pollard into his quest to keep Middle East peace negotiations alive was a complete and total fiasco. As I noted earlier today, not only was it a futile “Hail Mary” pass that was contemptuously torpedoed by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, even if both the PA and Israel had agreed to the terms of the proposed deal—which would have required Israel to free another batch of terrorist murderers and several hundred other security prisoners—it would have only meant continued negotiations with little hope that they will lead to an actual agreement.

The collapse of this effort is a great disappointment to those who have worked for Pollard’s release and a relief to those who want him to rot in jail. But the most disturbing element of this incident is not so much the latest proof of Kerry’s foolishness as it is the way that the discussion over Pollard has brought back to the surface the myths and misinformation about the case that come to the fore every time his name is in the news. Though advocates for his release are right to view Pollard’s sentence as excessive, much of what we have been hearing about him this week demonstrates anew the extent of the damage that he and his handlers did to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

At its heart, the debate about Pollard is about two competing themes. As I wrote in a comprehensive summary of the case three years ago, both Pollard’s defenders and his critics exaggerate their arguments. Though the information Pollard passed to the Israelis was, no doubt, useful to them, the assumption that it was a game-changer in terms of its security is unfounded. So, too, is the notion that the Israelis had a “right” to the information.

By the same token, the comparisons made between Pollard and various Soviet agents are absurd. Pollard was not spying for a hostile power and there is no evidence, nor even a reasonable argument to be made on behalf of the notion that he was in any way responsible for the deaths of U.S. agents in the field. Nor was what he did was in any way comparable to the revelations of Edward Snowden who deliberately sought to undermine U.S. intelligence operations and then fled to the safety of a hostile nation where he continues to thumb his nose at the United States. What he did was bad enough and deserving of severe punishment, but the manner with which the intelligence establishment has demonized him and made his release even after decades in prison and long after any information he might have possessed was relevant is as excessive as it is illogical.

The fact remains no one who ever spied for an ally—something that the U.S. has no scruples about doing itself with regard to Israel or other friendly nations like Germany—has ever received such a harsh sentence. Most such incidents are quickly covered up and forgotten. While Pollard’s espionage was particularly egregious, the life sentence he received violated the plea bargain negotiated with him by the government. The main reason he is still in jail is not so much the desire of the government to keep him locked up but the result of legal errors by his original attorneys that prevented appeals that would have almost certainly been successful in reducing his sentence. After 28 years, many of them in solitary, it cannot be asserted that he has not been punished or that defense of the rule of law depends on his continued incarceration. Since he will be eligible for parole in the fall of 2015, the talk about keeping him in prison forever is just hot air.

Nevertheless, this is an apt moment for both Israelis and Americans who are campaigning for his release to recognize that efforts to portray him as a hero are as damaging as they are misguided. It is legitimate for the Israeli government to seek the release of someone who is being punished for acts committed in the name of their country. But those who succumb to the temptation to treat his actions as anything other than a profoundly misguided operation are dead wrong.

Anyone listening to the debate about Pollard being conducted in the last week must understand that his name is synonymous with charges of dual loyalty against American Jews who serve in both the U.S. government and its armed forces. As I detailed in my 2011 article, the damage that the cynical decision to employ a foolish and unstable person as a spy has done to American Jews and to the vital alliance between the U.S. and Israel is incalculable.

While after serving so much time in prison he is deserving of clemency, I stand by my previous conclusion about what should be the final word about this subject:

Long after his release or death, Pollard’s behavior will still be used to bolster the slurs of those who wish to promote the pernicious myth that there is a contradiction between American patriotism and deep concern for the safety of the State of Israel. It is this damning epitaph, and not the claims of martyrdom that have been put forward to stir sympathy for his plight, that will be Jonathan Pollard’s true legacy.

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Snowden’s Hypocritical Show

Imagine a prominent foe of Vladimir Putin—someone who had been forced to flee Russia for fear of a jail sentence—appearing via video hookup from abroad to address a large audience in St. Petersburg to deliver withering criticisms of Putin’s attacks on civil liberties. Imagine, moreover, this personage receiving raucous applause from the Russian audience.

Hard to imagine, no? Precisely because there are no civil liberties in Russia, such a spectacle would be unlikely to occur, and if it did, everyone involved would face the danger of jail time.

Yet Edward Snowden has no problem speaking from an undisclosed location in Russian to address the South by Southwest Festival in Austin—and receiving a standing ovation from the audience and softball questions from his ACLU questioners on stage. What’s wrong with this picture?

No one apparently asked Snowden about the obvious hypocrisy involved of defending Internet freedom—with a copy of the Constitution superimposed behind him—even as he enjoys the hospitality of a despot who tramples on every freedom the Founding Fathers held dear. Instead the audience seemed to treat Snowden as if he were just another libertarian professor or writer—rather than one of the most damaging traitors in our country’s long history.

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Imagine a prominent foe of Vladimir Putin—someone who had been forced to flee Russia for fear of a jail sentence—appearing via video hookup from abroad to address a large audience in St. Petersburg to deliver withering criticisms of Putin’s attacks on civil liberties. Imagine, moreover, this personage receiving raucous applause from the Russian audience.

Hard to imagine, no? Precisely because there are no civil liberties in Russia, such a spectacle would be unlikely to occur, and if it did, everyone involved would face the danger of jail time.

Yet Edward Snowden has no problem speaking from an undisclosed location in Russian to address the South by Southwest Festival in Austin—and receiving a standing ovation from the audience and softball questions from his ACLU questioners on stage. What’s wrong with this picture?

No one apparently asked Snowden about the obvious hypocrisy involved of defending Internet freedom—with a copy of the Constitution superimposed behind him—even as he enjoys the hospitality of a despot who tramples on every freedom the Founding Fathers held dear. Instead the audience seemed to treat Snowden as if he were just another libertarian professor or writer—rather than one of the most damaging traitors in our country’s long history.

Too bad none of Snowden’s questioners had the wit or courage to ask him what he thinks about Internet controls in Russia or Putin’s power grab in Crimea. The answer would expose him either as a craven lackey of a dictator or leave him in danger of being booted out of his gilded exile.

It is hard to know what is more revolting: Snowden’s hubris in delivering his self-righteous lecture or his audience’s gullibility in according him oracular status that he earned by doing dire damage to the government which protects them, and the rest of us, from threats like al-Qaeda and, for that matter, Vladimir Putin.

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The NSA and a “Full Public Accounting”

So far most congressional Republican leaders have been pretty staunch in their support for the extraordinarily valuable intelligence-gathering programs that Edward Snowden has irresponsibly revealed. But there is another, more libertarian and isolationist faction of the party–the Rand Paul wing–which has a different take. Its views are evident from a resolution passed by the Republican National Committee via voice vote at its meeting in Washington.

The resolution in question denounces the NSA’s collection of metadata (recording connections among phone numbers but not the content of calls) by claiming that “the mass collection and retention of personal data is in itself contrary to the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” a view at odds with many (though not all) of the federal judges who have looked at the program.

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So far most congressional Republican leaders have been pretty staunch in their support for the extraordinarily valuable intelligence-gathering programs that Edward Snowden has irresponsibly revealed. But there is another, more libertarian and isolationist faction of the party–the Rand Paul wing–which has a different take. Its views are evident from a resolution passed by the Republican National Committee via voice vote at its meeting in Washington.

The resolution in question denounces the NSA’s collection of metadata (recording connections among phone numbers but not the content of calls) by claiming that “the mass collection and retention of personal data is in itself contrary to the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” a view at odds with many (though not all) of the federal judges who have looked at the program.

Going even further, the resolution claims that “unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society.” That conveniently ignores the fact that (a) our democracy has survived just fine over the past decade and (b) that the metadata program has been well warranted by the need to stop al-Qaeda from attacking us–something that (no coincidence) also hasn’t occurred over the past decade.

Based on these unwarranted assumptions, the RNC reaches a hyperbolic conclusion: “the Republican National Committee encourages Republican lawmakers to immediately take action to halt current unconstitutional surveillance programs and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s data collection programs.” You mean the RNC feels that the “full public accounting” provided by Edward Snowden is insufficient? The Republican Party leaders would like to see more irresponsible disclosures of our most covert intelligence-gathering programs?

Republicans have already done a good job over the past decade in squandering their traditional advantage in the national-security arena–for example by supporting sequestration, which could have a devastating impact on our military readiness and by not supporting strong action to stop the bloodshed in Syria. Now a certain segment of the GOP appears determined to get to the left of President Obama in the war on terrorism.

Earlier I called this the Rand Paul wing of the GOP; it might just as well be called the Maxine Waters wing. When Republicans see eye-to-eye with the most extreme doves in the Democratic Party, it’s time for a gut check.

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What Was the Point of Obama’s NSA Speech?

President Obama’s speech on NSA reform had all the hallmarks of his administration—and, not coincidentally, of his hyper-analytical, aloof, and cerebral personality.

The endless, quasi-public policy review? Check. Lengthy consultations with a vast variety of experts? Check. (“I’ve listened to foreign partners, privacy advocates, and industry leaders. My administration has spent countless hours considering how to approach intelligence in this era of diffuse threats and technological revolution.”) The rhetorical genuflections to appear fair to both sides. (“Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms…. [But] even the United States proved not to be immune to the abuse of surveillance.”)

And, finally, the laboriously fashioned compromise designed to satisfy everyone, which will actually please no one, with policy proposals of exquisite if sometimes baffling nuance.

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President Obama’s speech on NSA reform had all the hallmarks of his administration—and, not coincidentally, of his hyper-analytical, aloof, and cerebral personality.

The endless, quasi-public policy review? Check. Lengthy consultations with a vast variety of experts? Check. (“I’ve listened to foreign partners, privacy advocates, and industry leaders. My administration has spent countless hours considering how to approach intelligence in this era of diffuse threats and technological revolution.”) The rhetorical genuflections to appear fair to both sides. (“Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms…. [But] even the United States proved not to be immune to the abuse of surveillance.”)

And, finally, the laboriously fashioned compromise designed to satisfy everyone, which will actually please no one, with policy proposals of exquisite if sometimes baffling nuance.

This is a pattern we have previously seen, inter alia, with regard to Middle East policy (think of the Cairo speech), Afghanistan, drones, and Guantanamo Bay. Now with the NSA.

Obama, thankfully, declined an opportunity, as advocated by some of his most fervent supporters (who want to see Edward Snowden canonized rather than crucified), to cripple the NSA’s intelligence collection. Instead he is calling for a series of smaller steps that will merely impede the NSA’s activities a bit—or perhaps a lot. It’s hard to tell from the rather vague plans he outlined which will require considerable congressional action, which may or may not be forthcoming.

The president called “on Congress to authorize the establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.” He “directed the Attorney General to amend how we use national security letters so that this secrecy will not be indefinite, so that it will terminate within a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy.” He took “the unprecedented step of extending certain protections that we have for the American people to people overseas” and mandated that “unless there is a compelling national security purpose we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies.”

Potentially Obama’s most sweeping proposal was also the most amorphous—his plan to alter the collection of telephone metadata. This is the database that NSA has been collecting which lists all phone numbers called and the time and origin of calls and which, with judicial oversight, can be queried for specific information on numbers that may be linked to terrorists.  

“Effective immediately,” Obama said, “we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of the current three. And I have directed the Attorney General to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding or in the case of a true emergency.”

All of this is an interim step toward some larger restructuring of the metadata program—a plan that, for all of his months of reflection, the president has not actually come up with and that Congress is far from enacting. Attorney General Holder has been directed to fill in the blanks by the end of March with a program whereby the government can still have ready access to metadata without actually holding onto it. In other words, to square a circle.

As with other Obama decisions, the best that can be said for this is that it could have been worse. That said, it is also the case that these restrictions seem pointless. They will hamper efforts to fight a resurgent al-Qaeda without satisfying the demands of ACLU absolutists. Will fundamentalist libertarians who imagine that Big Brother is spying on their Web browsing sleep better at night knowing that the metadata database can only be queried for phone calls two steps removed from terrorists rather than three? It hardly seems likely, yet that cut-off at two steps rather than three could make all the difference in a terrorist investigation.

There will certainly be important loss of intelligence if Obama’s unwise extension of civil liberty protections to foreigners, including foreign leaders, is seriously implemented—something that’s hard to tell amid all the qualifiers and weasel words (“unless there is a compelling national security purpose”). And it is certain that this American restraint will not be reciprocated by foreign intelligence agencies, even those of our allies. President Obama and other senior officials will still have to leave their Blackberrys and iPhones behind when they enter the Situation Room because they know that foreign intelligence agencies will be trying to “collect” on them.

What the point of all this is it’s hard to say, given that Obama himself acknowledged that “the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people. They’re not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails. When mistakes are made—which is inevitable in any large and complicated human enterprise—they correct those mistakes.”

If that’s the case—and nothing from Edward Snowden has shown otherwise—what is the point of hindering the NSA’s collection efforts? After all of the intensive work that went into unveiling this policy, its purpose remains as much of a mystery as its impact. All we know for sure is that Obama is tinkering with something that wasn’t broken—and that has in fact worked effectively to protect us from another 9/11.

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All NSA News Fit to Print?

It seems to be open season on the NSA. Hardly a day passes without more irresponsible disclosures of the cyber-techniques it uses to fight terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and hostile states such as China and Iran. The latest is the disclosure that it “has implanted software in nearly 100,000 computers around the world that allows the United States to conduct surveillance on those machines and can also create a digital highway for launching cyberattacks.”

The New York Times, which reports this news in Wednesday’s newspaper, notes that the information originally appeared in even more detailed form in two foreign newspapers: “A Dutch newspaper published the map of areas where the United States has inserted spy software, sometimes in cooperation with local authorities, often covertly. Der Spiegel, a German newsmagazine, published the N.S.A.’s catalog of hardware products that can secretly transmit and receive digital signals from computers, a program called ANT.”

Why this is news fit to print is a bit of a mystery since, as the Times notes, “there is no evidence that the N.S.A. has implanted its software or used its radio frequency technology inside the United States.” So even if you assume (wrongly) that the NSA is some kind of big brother organization engaged in nefarious monitoring of your Web-browsing habits, the efforts disclosed here are totally unrelated. Like much of what we have learned of the NSA’s activities, this relates to foreign espionage, a realm in which until now there has been pretty universal agreement that the U.S. intelligence community should do its utmost to ferret out the secrets of aggressors or potential aggressors.

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It seems to be open season on the NSA. Hardly a day passes without more irresponsible disclosures of the cyber-techniques it uses to fight terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and hostile states such as China and Iran. The latest is the disclosure that it “has implanted software in nearly 100,000 computers around the world that allows the United States to conduct surveillance on those machines and can also create a digital highway for launching cyberattacks.”

The New York Times, which reports this news in Wednesday’s newspaper, notes that the information originally appeared in even more detailed form in two foreign newspapers: “A Dutch newspaper published the map of areas where the United States has inserted spy software, sometimes in cooperation with local authorities, often covertly. Der Spiegel, a German newsmagazine, published the N.S.A.’s catalog of hardware products that can secretly transmit and receive digital signals from computers, a program called ANT.”

Why this is news fit to print is a bit of a mystery since, as the Times notes, “there is no evidence that the N.S.A. has implanted its software or used its radio frequency technology inside the United States.” So even if you assume (wrongly) that the NSA is some kind of big brother organization engaged in nefarious monitoring of your Web-browsing habits, the efforts disclosed here are totally unrelated. Like much of what we have learned of the NSA’s activities, this relates to foreign espionage, a realm in which until now there has been pretty universal agreement that the U.S. intelligence community should do its utmost to ferret out the secrets of aggressors or potential aggressors.

It is hard to know what exactly Edward Snowden and his media enablers think they are up to. Are they advocating the position of Secretary of State Henry Stimson who in 1929 closed the State Department’s code-cracking office with the naive statement that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail”? Not quite, because even extremists like Glenn Greenwald know that such an argument would not fly with most reasonable people. So Snowden, Greenwald et al. are not actually bothering to make a cogent argument–they are simply exposing and sabotaging the NSA’s activities willy-nilly and trying to create a vague impression that the NSA has been doing something wrong.

Of course they say nothing about the cyber-intelligence activities of Iran, China, Russia, North Korea, or other states; perhaps if we knew more about what they’re up to, more people would understand the folly of the unilateral disarmament that Snowden and his acolytes seem to be advocating.

For all the incoherence of the Snowden argument, it must be admitted that it has achieved its effect, putting NSA “reform” at the top of the political agenda. All of Washington waits to see how far President Obama will go in reining in our most valuable intelligence agency; he is due to announce his position on Friday.

Let us hope he gives serious heed to the advice of knowledgeable experts such as federal Judge John Bates, a former chief judge of the court which oversees the NSA, who warns that it would be a mistake to create a privacy advocate to appear before the court or take other steps (such as limiting the FBI’s ability to issue administrative subpoenas for phone records) that numerous NSA critics have advocated.

There is a good if not incontrovertible probability that if the NSA’s present activities had existed in 2001, the 9/11 attacks might never have happened. There is an equally good probability that if we significantly rein in the NSA’s collection efforts, we are dramatically increasing the probability of another 9/11.

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Spying on Americans, Then and Now

John and Bonnie Raines are America’s newest libertarian heroes. The pair earned this distinction nearly 43 years ago, when, along with several accomplices, they broke into an F.B.I. regional office in Media, Pennsylvania and made off with a massive haul of confidential files that turned out to be proof of a secret program that authorized spying on anti-Vietnam War protesters. Baffled authorities never solved the theft and the group leaked enough of the documents to the press to help set in motion a backlash against the intelligence community that ultimately brought an end to such practices. As such, the burglars—who dubbed themselves the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the F.B.I.—can claim to have had a real impact on government policy. Even more to the point, they seem to think they set a precedent for future whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden who made off to Russia with a far bigger treasure trove of secrets about the activities of the National Security Agency.

The Raines couple as well as the other members of their circle have now come forward after keeping quiet for so long as part of the publicity campaign surrounding a book about their exploits by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger that generated a front-page feature in today’s New York Times as well as a number of television interviews. It’s quite a tale and one that summons up a bygone era of abuses when F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover was a power unto himself with virtually no accountability to Congress or the presidents who came and went while he lingered in office for five decades. But before we attempt to use this case to justify Snowden or to lionize the F.B.I. burglars, it’s important to understand both the context of the government’s concerns about peace protesters as well as to draw a distinction between what they did and the contemporary movement to hamstring the NSA.

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John and Bonnie Raines are America’s newest libertarian heroes. The pair earned this distinction nearly 43 years ago, when, along with several accomplices, they broke into an F.B.I. regional office in Media, Pennsylvania and made off with a massive haul of confidential files that turned out to be proof of a secret program that authorized spying on anti-Vietnam War protesters. Baffled authorities never solved the theft and the group leaked enough of the documents to the press to help set in motion a backlash against the intelligence community that ultimately brought an end to such practices. As such, the burglars—who dubbed themselves the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the F.B.I.—can claim to have had a real impact on government policy. Even more to the point, they seem to think they set a precedent for future whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden who made off to Russia with a far bigger treasure trove of secrets about the activities of the National Security Agency.

The Raines couple as well as the other members of their circle have now come forward after keeping quiet for so long as part of the publicity campaign surrounding a book about their exploits by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger that generated a front-page feature in today’s New York Times as well as a number of television interviews. It’s quite a tale and one that summons up a bygone era of abuses when F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover was a power unto himself with virtually no accountability to Congress or the presidents who came and went while he lingered in office for five decades. But before we attempt to use this case to justify Snowden or to lionize the F.B.I. burglars, it’s important to understand both the context of the government’s concerns about peace protesters as well as to draw a distinction between what they did and the contemporary movement to hamstring the NSA.

There can be no defense for Hoover’s decision to unleash the secret “Cointelpro” program—a term discovered in the burglars’ cache of documents but not revealed as the code name for a domestic spying and dirty tricks agenda pursued by Hoover until the 1980s—that ran amok from the 1950s to the 1970s.  The effort involved work by agents provocateurs and other operatives not only to monitor leftist radicals, Communists, and civil-rights groups, but also attempts to disrupt their activities and even, in the case of Martin Luther King Jr., to blackmail him about extramarital affairs that were discovered in the course of F.B.I. spying.

Almost all of it was done without proper authorization from political authorities or the courts and, needless to say, must be characterized as an unconstitutional invasion of privacy as well as an illegal abuse of authority. As such, the revelations about the F.B.I.’s activity led to necessary reforms that put an end to this unconstitutional mayhem.

But it should also be noted that any self-righteous posturing on the part of the burglars or their contemporary fans must be tempered by the knowledge that while Hoover’s behavior was outrageous, not all anti-war activity in the late 1960s and early 1970s was blameless. This was an era in which a small portion of the anti-war movement had morphed into a violent terrorist group known as the Weather Underground that committed a number of robberies, bombings, and murders to pursue their aims. That was also true of the Black Panthers, a murderous gang of thugs who were able to persuade a large number of naïve liberals to buy into their masquerade as civil-rights activists.

Just as the existence of a small cadre of real-life Communist spies in Washington and elsewhere in this country didn’t justify the blacklisting of every radical during the McCarthy era, neither the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, nor other such criminal enterprises can excuse everything that was done in the name of Cointelpro.

That is where we are being urged by libertarian and leftist government critics to make the link between these ’70s peaceniks and Snowden. Like Snowden, they still assert their illegal breaking and entering as well as theft of classified government documents was necessary because without them, the country would not have known what Hoover was up to. But even if we take the defense of their activity at face value—a position that is undermined by doubts about whether they were more interested in defending ordinary peace protesters or a desire to have the government back off on efforts to deal with genuinely dangerous radicals—there is a huge difference between the 1971 burglary and what Snowden has done.

After all, for good or for ill, everything in the stolen F.B.I. files related to domestic surveillance that could probably not be presented in court as part of a legal investigation. Even much of the monitoring of real criminals operating under the rubric of war-protesters was legally murky or at least had probably not been properly vetted by the courts, the Justice Department, or Congress.

But none of that can be said about the vast trove of intelligence files stolen by Snowden. While the courts will have the final say about the NSA metadata mining (one lower federal court has ruled it was illegal, another, rightly in my view, said it was not), the FISA court had authorized the activity, as had congressional oversight committees and the highest political authorities in the land.

Even more to the point, had Snowden only leaked files about domestic operations by the NSA he might have merited at least a superficial comparison to the burglars of 1971. But instead what he released was a vast body of intelligence, most of which related to America’s efforts to deal with foreign threats and other routine spying on targets abroad. What he sought to do was to effectively eviscerate any intelligence work by the U.S. government, something that not only endangered agents in the field but could potentially render America helpless to defend itself against future 9/11-style attacks. Any comparison between that kind of broad-based attack on a vital government function and Hoover’s over-reach is absurd. So, too, is the notion that Snowden is a whistle-blower who deserves to be honored or at least pardoned. The F.B.I. burglars may not be quite the heroes that they are now making themselves out to be, but the long-term impact of their actions should not be treated as a precedent for a genuine rogue like Snowden.

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Peter King’s Misguided Attack on Rand Paul

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s strengths as a prospective presidential candidate are generally well known, but there’s one that probably doesn’t get enough attention: he tends to get in his opponents’ heads all too easily. There was his filibuster over drones, which drew the accusation from John McCain that Paul was one of the party’s “wacko birds,” even when many who wouldn’t instinctively agree with Paul on the issue expressed admiration for his principled stand.

And there is his ongoing rivalry with Congressman Peter King, who is apparently contemplating challenging Paul for the GOP nomination in 2016. Paul’s criticism just before Christmas of National Intelligence Director James Clapper–who quite clearly misled Congress to avoid divulging classified information at a hearing–put King right out of the holiday spirit. “It’s an absolute disgrace,” King said of Paul. “He disgraced his office and he owes General Clapper an apology immediately.”

With all the revelations about the NSA data collection, it was unlikely to be the last installment of the King-Paul spats on the subject. And sure enough, King raised the ante yesterday on Fox:

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Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s strengths as a prospective presidential candidate are generally well known, but there’s one that probably doesn’t get enough attention: he tends to get in his opponents’ heads all too easily. There was his filibuster over drones, which drew the accusation from John McCain that Paul was one of the party’s “wacko birds,” even when many who wouldn’t instinctively agree with Paul on the issue expressed admiration for his principled stand.

And there is his ongoing rivalry with Congressman Peter King, who is apparently contemplating challenging Paul for the GOP nomination in 2016. Paul’s criticism just before Christmas of National Intelligence Director James Clapper–who quite clearly misled Congress to avoid divulging classified information at a hearing–put King right out of the holiday spirit. “It’s an absolute disgrace,” King said of Paul. “He disgraced his office and he owes General Clapper an apology immediately.”

With all the revelations about the NSA data collection, it was unlikely to be the last installment of the King-Paul spats on the subject. And sure enough, King raised the ante yesterday on Fox:

“Rand Paul does not know what he’s talking about,” King said after being asked to respond to Paul’s comments about the NSA. “And, Rand Paul is really spreading fear among the American people.”

“He was also was comparing General [James] Clapper to [Edward] Snowden,” King continued. “To me, he’s either totally uninformed or he’s part of that hate America crowd that I thought left us in the 1960s.”

“In any event, he doesn’t deserve to be in the United States senate for spreading that type of misperception and absolute lies to be honest with you,” the congressman concluded.

“Hate America”; “absolute lies”; “doesn’t deserve to be” a senator–these are strong words. They are also a disservice to the cause King is advocating, which is ostensibly a safe, strong America. And further, they are unnecessary. Based on the foreign-policy-related remarks from the other possible 2016 candidates, Paul appears to be in the minority on policy grounds–if not on the NSA, which isn’t particularly popular right now, then on a more holistic approach to foreign affairs.

Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and by all indications Mike Pence believe in a more robust American presence in the world and are more comfortable with the projection of U.S. power than Rand Paul. Yet perhaps that’s what is motivating King after all–a belief that he needs to separate himself from the pack.

But King risks setting himself apart from the pack in another way, and not one that puts him on the side of the majority. King’s comments, yesterday and in other settings, carry the tone of someone far less trusting of his fellow citizens than of the government’s vast bureaucracy. The truth is, each day brings stories of the harm the NSA leaks can do to U.S. national security as well as reasons to demand answers from the agency itself.

Today, for example, Robert Samuelson warns that the disclosures could greatly damage the public-private collaboration on cybersecurity that is so greatly needed right now: “This may be the Snowden affair’s most insidious (and overlooked) consequence.” Yet Lachlan Markay notes that according to an internal report, the NSA was warned about possible Snowdens way back in 1996, prompting Gary Schmitt to comment that while Snowden betrayed his country, he “had (unwitting) accomplices who either ignored implementing existing security measures or failed to establish the most obvious and rudimentary security plans for contractors.”

Rand Paul has often been far too credulous of Snowden and his antidemocratic, self-righteous duplicity. As I wrote recently, Snowden believes he has the right to break federal law when members of Congress give statements he finds insufficient, and his grasp of American history would embarrass a grade-schooler. Paul should know better.

But so should King. Even if King believes the government has the legal right to collect the meta-data involved in the NSA programs, is he not concerned that the agency has time and again implied it can’t safeguard or control the information it collects? Does he honestly believe that there’s no room in the United States Senate for a civil libertarian like Paul?

This discussion demands a serious defense of America’s post-9/11 national-security infrastructure that also grapples with the changing conditions on the ground and the growing public skepticism toward government. King’s unusually personal attacks on Paul haven’t provided it.

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Clemency for Snowden?

The year is still young, but I would say the New York Times’s editorial board has already retired the prize for the most irresponsible, unconvincing, and pernicious editorial of the year with “Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower.”

To get to the bottom line up front: The Times would like the U.S. government to offer “a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.”

Personally, the only kind of plea bargain I would like to see offered to Snowden is one that allows him to serve life in a maximum-security prison rather than face the death penalty for his treason.

Why does the Times think we should adopt a more lenient approach to one of the most damaging traitors in our nation’s history–a man who, in the words of Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies”?

Because, the Times claims, Snowden’s leaks are justified on the following grounds: “The public learned in great detail how the agency has exceeded its mandate and abused its authority, prompting outrage at kitchen tables and at the desks of Congress, which may finally begin to limit these practices.”

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The year is still young, but I would say the New York Times’s editorial board has already retired the prize for the most irresponsible, unconvincing, and pernicious editorial of the year with “Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower.”

To get to the bottom line up front: The Times would like the U.S. government to offer “a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.”

Personally, the only kind of plea bargain I would like to see offered to Snowden is one that allows him to serve life in a maximum-security prison rather than face the death penalty for his treason.

Why does the Times think we should adopt a more lenient approach to one of the most damaging traitors in our nation’s history–a man who, in the words of Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies”?

Because, the Times claims, Snowden’s leaks are justified on the following grounds: “The public learned in great detail how the agency has exceeded its mandate and abused its authority, prompting outrage at kitchen tables and at the desks of Congress, which may finally begin to limit these practices.”

Maybe the Times editorialists have some special information that the rest of us are not privileged to have, but I have been following this story pretty closely and I am not aware of anything that the NSA has done without the authorization of Congress, the executive branch, and the special court that oversees its activities–even if (in the case of eavesdropping on the German chancellor, Angela Merkel) the president would rather have some “deniability” about his personal responsibility.

In fact there is no evidence of the NSA exceeding its mandate and the only evidence of it doing anything wrong (such as accidentally entering the wrong phone number) was a small number of errors in its data searches which were caught and reported and corrected by its own internal audits. There is no sign of any malicious or criminal intent in any of these errors–and no evidence that the NSA has become a Big Brother listening in on everyone.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Listen to the members of Congress, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, who has said about one of the NSA’s most controversial activities (the collection of meta-data on phone calls): “The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight.”

Even if you think that the NSA’s collection programs are excessive, it is hard to make the case that sharing the most vital secrets of the U.S. government with the news media–and probably hostile foreign governments in Beijing and Moscow, although the Times doesn’t mention this inconvenient probability–is the way to address the problem. Snowden now claims that he tried to notify a couple of superiors about his concerns; the NSA denies it. Whatever the case, there is no evidence he tried to notify the NSA’s inspector general, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or the intelligence committees of Congress. No doubt this is precisely because he knew that all of the activities he disliked were fully authorized by all three branches of government.

What we have here is not a case of “whistle-blowing,” as the Times disingenuously claims, but a case of a young, arrogant, headstrong techie with a libertarian bent and a taste for fame who has taken upon himself the responsibility of deciding which intelligence programs the U.S. government may carry out and which it may not. A true whistleblower, like Daniel Ellsberg, stays to face the consequences of his actions–he does not flee to hostile foreign capitals.

By his actions Snowden has placed the entire nation at risk. Even if terrorists and foreign enemies don’t manage to take advantage of Snowden’s disclosures to attack the U.S., the cost of repairing the damage he has caused will be steep–certainly amounting to billions of dollars because he has rendered some valuable collection programs useless.

Perhaps there is a prudential case, as an NSA investigator recently suggested, for offering Snowden amnesty in return for preventing the disclosure of even more highly classified information that he stole–but that is not what the Times is suggesting. It is instead granting its benediction to Snowden’s activities, suggesting he should be considered a hero, not a traitor. That’s a funny stance for a newspaper to take that, not so long ago, in the Valerie Plame case, was aghast at the notion of blowing any secrets–even though the Plame disclosure had an infinitesimal impact on national security compared to the Snowden disclosures.

If Snowden is allowed to get away with his crimes, it is hard to see how the intelligence apparatus of the U.S. can function. Successful intelligence, after all, is premised on secrecy–and that secrecy will not last long if every intelligence community employee feels free to disclose whatever secrets he knows simply because he disagrees with what his superiors are doing. Yet that would be the logical consequence of the Times‘s risible suggestion to rehabilitate Snowden.

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A Complex Issue and a Simplistic Snowden

The Washington Post’s interview with Edward Snowden is bound to evoke complicated, on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other responses–a complexity that contrasts sharply with Snowden’s own simplistic, shallow conception of the issues at play. And it is this contrast that leaves those skeptical of massive government programs ultimately still in search of an advocate worthy of the cause of transparency, for Edward Snowden is not that advocate.

On the one hand, those seeking to defend the NSA’s domestic digital intelligence collection point out that, as Michael Mukasey notes today, the members of the president’s intel review board “have not uncovered any official efforts to suppress dissent or any intent to intrude into people’s private lives without legal justification.” On the other hand, critics of big government are on plenty firm ground when they say they should not be required to await abuse to argue, on principle, against secretive programs ripe for such abuse. The prevention of abuse of power, not simply the correction of abuse of power, is a legitimate goal for a self-governing people.

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The Washington Post’s interview with Edward Snowden is bound to evoke complicated, on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other responses–a complexity that contrasts sharply with Snowden’s own simplistic, shallow conception of the issues at play. And it is this contrast that leaves those skeptical of massive government programs ultimately still in search of an advocate worthy of the cause of transparency, for Edward Snowden is not that advocate.

On the one hand, those seeking to defend the NSA’s domestic digital intelligence collection point out that, as Michael Mukasey notes today, the members of the president’s intel review board “have not uncovered any official efforts to suppress dissent or any intent to intrude into people’s private lives without legal justification.” On the other hand, critics of big government are on plenty firm ground when they say they should not be required to await abuse to argue, on principle, against secretive programs ripe for such abuse. The prevention of abuse of power, not simply the correction of abuse of power, is a legitimate goal for a self-governing people.

But is that Edward Snowden’s goal? The overwhelming evidence would suggest it is manifestly not. In fact, Snowden’s interview, for those who could sit through the messianic self-aggrandizing delusions, was most revealing in Snowden’s clear distaste for the very concept of democracy. An argument can be made that the system of checks and balances surrounding the NSA program is insufficiently skeptical toward the means because of governmental deference to the ends. But it remains the case that the American people have elected representatives, to whom Snowden did not first go with this information, despite there being obviously sympathetic members of Congress (Ron Wyden, Rand Paul, etc.).

Additionally, the intel collection has legal oversight and its constitutionality has been challenged and upheld. Again, this doesn’t mean the process is flawless–conservatives consider some laws to be unconstitutional despite the high court’s acquiescence. But compare that with Snowden’s response when his interviewer, Barton Gellman–one of the journalists through whom Snowden has been leaking his information–asks him about his sense of authority and entitlement:

“That whole question — who elected you? — inverts the model,” he said. “They elected me. The overseers.”

He named the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees.

“Dianne Feinstein elected me when she asked softball questions” in committee hearings, he said. “Mike Rogers elected me when he kept these programs hidden. . . . The FISA court elected me when they decided to legislate from the bench on things that were far beyond the mandate of what that court was ever intended to do. The system failed comprehensively, and each level of oversight, each level of responsibility that should have addressed this, abdicated their responsibility.”

“It wasn’t that they put it on me as an individual — that I’m uniquely qualified, an angel descending from the heavens — as that they put it on someone, somewhere,” he said. “You have the capability, and you realize every other [person] sitting around the table has the same capability but they don’t do it. So somebody has to be the first.”

There are two possible conclusions to be drawn from Snowden’s answer. Either he is a deeply unintelligent man with a tenuous grasp on reality, or he is a deeply dishonest man brimming with hostility toward Western democracy. That he accomplished what he did and now lives under the watchful gaze of the Russian security services suggests that the latter is far more likely. That’s not to say there isn’t also evidence for the former theory–witness his choice of historical analogy:

Snowden likened the NSA’s powers to those used by British authorities in Colonial America, when “general warrants” allowed for anyone to be searched. The FISA court, Snowden said, “is authorizing general warrants for the entire country’s metadata.”

“The last time that happened, we fought a war over it,” he said.

The comparison is historically illiterate and the conclusion asinine. Nonetheless, it fits with his pattern of dishonesty and self-promotion. He’s also a hypocrite: he claims to be for transparency, but has given his interview to a friendly and cooperative source, and even then he declines to answer certain questions about his own activity and the materials he possesses. He claims to be for the rule of law, but eschewed legal channels for his activity in favor of breaking the law and then evaded the legal consequences with the help of authoritarian, criminal regimes. He claims to want a discussion about domestic spying, but revealed damaging information about American spying abroad.

There is plenty, in other words, Edward Snowden is not telling us, and what he is telling us undermines his hollow attempts to claim the dignified posture of a whistleblower. There are troubling aspects to the NSA’s data collection, and an honest argument about transparency and security might keep that trouble at bay. But Snowden is not an honest messenger and he is not conducting an honest discussion. The American people, and the cause of transparency and limited government, deserve better than Edward Snowden.

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Snowden, Spying, and Pollard

The outrage in Europe about the revelations by Edward Snowden of U.S. spying on allies embarrassed the Obama administration and caused the president to speak of trying to impose new guidelines on the National Security Agency and to try and distance himself from the affair. As Max Boot wrote here in October, the White House’s decision to throw the intelligence community under the bus was disgraceful. But the hypocrisy of America’s critics on this point was no less absurd. No one should doubt that the U.S. spies on its friends and that, in turn, its allies spy on America. Thus, the latest round of Snowden leaks published in the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and the New York Times on Friday giving further details about such spying should surprise and outrage no one. But there is one aspect of the topic that is understandably causing something of a ruckus: U.S. efforts to keep tabs on Israeli leaders. According to the Snowden leaks, the United States worked with British intelligence to intercept the emails of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak as well as other Israeli targets. The reports also state that Barak’s home was under surveillance by the Americans.

For those inclined to outrage about friends spying on friends, this is no more nor less infuriating than the stories about other such incidents, such as the U.S. efforts to monitor German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. But there is one difference between the incidents involving other allies and what happened to Israel. The U.S. is not holding a German or French spy in prison for more than 28 years for doing what America did to them.

By that I refer to Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who betrayed his oath and spied on his country at the behest of Israeli handlers. Jailed in 1985, Pollard is still serving a draconian life sentence for espionage. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wisely not seeking to exacerbate the already tense relations between his government and the United States over the Snowden leaks, some in his Cabinet as well as other Israelis are saying the stories about U.S. spying should cause the Obama administration to rethink its determination (shared by all of its predecessors) to let Pollard rot in jail. Though I deprecate the attempt by some in Israel and elsewhere to depict Pollard as a hero or to minimize the severity of his crimes, they happen to be right.

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The outrage in Europe about the revelations by Edward Snowden of U.S. spying on allies embarrassed the Obama administration and caused the president to speak of trying to impose new guidelines on the National Security Agency and to try and distance himself from the affair. As Max Boot wrote here in October, the White House’s decision to throw the intelligence community under the bus was disgraceful. But the hypocrisy of America’s critics on this point was no less absurd. No one should doubt that the U.S. spies on its friends and that, in turn, its allies spy on America. Thus, the latest round of Snowden leaks published in the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and the New York Times on Friday giving further details about such spying should surprise and outrage no one. But there is one aspect of the topic that is understandably causing something of a ruckus: U.S. efforts to keep tabs on Israeli leaders. According to the Snowden leaks, the United States worked with British intelligence to intercept the emails of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak as well as other Israeli targets. The reports also state that Barak’s home was under surveillance by the Americans.

For those inclined to outrage about friends spying on friends, this is no more nor less infuriating than the stories about other such incidents, such as the U.S. efforts to monitor German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. But there is one difference between the incidents involving other allies and what happened to Israel. The U.S. is not holding a German or French spy in prison for more than 28 years for doing what America did to them.

By that I refer to Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who betrayed his oath and spied on his country at the behest of Israeli handlers. Jailed in 1985, Pollard is still serving a draconian life sentence for espionage. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wisely not seeking to exacerbate the already tense relations between his government and the United States over the Snowden leaks, some in his Cabinet as well as other Israelis are saying the stories about U.S. spying should cause the Obama administration to rethink its determination (shared by all of its predecessors) to let Pollard rot in jail. Though I deprecate the attempt by some in Israel and elsewhere to depict Pollard as a hero or to minimize the severity of his crimes, they happen to be right.

As I wrote in an analysis of the Pollard case in the March 2011 issue of COMMENTARY, both the spy’s defenders and his worst critics tend to exaggerate his importance. But there should be no doubt that what he did was wrong and badly hurt Israel as well as the United States:

There is no underestimating the damage that Pollard and his Israeli handlers did to American Jewry. The decision on the part of a few operatives and their political masters to exploit what may well have been the romantic delusions of a man of questionable judgment and character did far more injury to the countless loyal Jews who have served the United States so well for generations than anything else. It is not inappropriate that Israel’s government would seek the freedom of a man who, however misguided and harmful his mission, served that nation. But whether or not Obama or a future president ever accedes to Israel’s request for Pollard’s release, his unfortunate example will always be exploited as a pretext to justify those enemies of Israel and other anti-Semites who wish to wrongly impugn the loyalty of American Jews.

Long after his release or death, Pollard’s behavior will still be used to bolster the slurs of those who wish to promote the pernicious myth that there is a contradiction between American patriotism and deep concern for the safety of the State of Israel. It is this damning epitaph, and not the claims of martyrdom that have been put forward to stir sympathy for his plight, that will be Jonathan Pollard’s true legacy.

But once we concede that point, it is difficult to view his continued incarceration as justified. While the United States, like any other country, has every right to capture and prosecute spies, Pollard’s sentence was disproportionate. No one who has ever spied for a U.S. ally has ever received a sentence of this kind. Indeed, such spies are usually quickly ushered out of the country rather than prosecuted in order to avoid unpleasantness. As a U.S. citizen, Pollard had to be punished, but the determination of the U.S. intelligence establishment to see that he dies in jail seems to be based more in a desire to let him serve as a warning to Israel than anything else.

Just as Pollard’s spying is not justified by America’s efforts to do the same to Israel, his lawbreaking can’t be rationalized by U.S. activities. Serious people understand that this is what nation states do. Some of the spying is more outrageous than others (certainly the decision of Israelis to use an American Jew and to loot the Navy’s intelligence falls into that category). But the Snowden leaks make it clear that the self-righteous attitude of U.S. intelligence about Pollard is, at best, hypocritical.

Washington’s attitude on this point may be that small allies that are dependent on big ones for help, such as Israel, can’t expect to be treated fairly or to be granted the same leeway on such matters. That may well be so. But the Snowden leaks erase any doubt that such a position can be justified. Though it’s doubtful that President Obama will make it up to Israel by granting Pollard clemency, there is no reason based in justice or morality for him not to do so. Whatever else Snowden (who deserves punishment no less than Pollard did) has accomplished, he has made it clear that it is long past time for the U.S. to end the Pollard affair by setting him free.

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A Solution in Search of a Problem

The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies is getting a lot of publicity for its recommendations to substantially scale back NSA surveillance. But reading its report, which has just been released, it’s not obvious what problem the panel is addressing or why its proposed “solution” is an improvement on the status quo.

The report includes a summary of how the government has in the past used the exigencies of war to trample on civil liberties–a theme developed more fully in panel member Geoffrey Stone’s book Perilous Times. All of the usual horrors are cited, from the Sedition Act of 1798, to the detention of Japanese-Americans in World War II, and the CIA/FBI spying on antiwar activists in the 1960s. The panel piously intones: “Too often,  we have overreacted in periods of national crisis and then later, with the  benefit of hindsight, recognized our failures, reevaluated our judgments,  and attempted to correct our policies going forward. We must learn the lessons of history.”

I kept expecting a similar set of excesses to be cited arising from the USA Patriot Act and the heightened activities it authorized on the part of the NSA. I waited in vain. The panel cites no examples–not one–of actual abuses committed by the NSA or other surveillance agencies today. In fact from everything we know the NSA has been scrupulous in its use of metadata. Although it has maintained a vast database of American calls overseas it queried that database only 300 times last year under procedures supervised by both Congress and the courts.

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The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies is getting a lot of publicity for its recommendations to substantially scale back NSA surveillance. But reading its report, which has just been released, it’s not obvious what problem the panel is addressing or why its proposed “solution” is an improvement on the status quo.

The report includes a summary of how the government has in the past used the exigencies of war to trample on civil liberties–a theme developed more fully in panel member Geoffrey Stone’s book Perilous Times. All of the usual horrors are cited, from the Sedition Act of 1798, to the detention of Japanese-Americans in World War II, and the CIA/FBI spying on antiwar activists in the 1960s. The panel piously intones: “Too often,  we have overreacted in periods of national crisis and then later, with the  benefit of hindsight, recognized our failures, reevaluated our judgments,  and attempted to correct our policies going forward. We must learn the lessons of history.”

I kept expecting a similar set of excesses to be cited arising from the USA Patriot Act and the heightened activities it authorized on the part of the NSA. I waited in vain. The panel cites no examples–not one–of actual abuses committed by the NSA or other surveillance agencies today. In fact from everything we know the NSA has been scrupulous in its use of metadata. Although it has maintained a vast database of American calls overseas it queried that database only 300 times last year under procedures supervised by both Congress and the courts.

For all of his leaks, Edward Snowden could not cite a single actual example of the NSA spying on someone it wasn’t supposed to be spying on or using the information it attained for personal or partisan advantage rather than to safeguard the national interest. The review group can’t cite a single such example either; it is forced to resort to generalized concerns about “privacy” being invaded by the government, even though the collection of metadata is a lot less intrusive than widespread surveillance by security cameras on the streets or by Internet commerce companies online. In short it seems that we have learned from history and figured out how to collect intelligence without committing the abuses of the past. But that doesn’t stop the panel from recommending steps that will hamper the NSA’s attempts to monitor terrorist groups and other threats to national security.

The headline recommendation is that “that Congress should end such storage and transition to a system in which such metadata is held privately for the government to query when necessary for national security purposes.” The panel claims that “this approach would allow the government access to the relevant  information when such access is justified, and thus protect national security without unnecessarily threatening privacy and liberty.”

This would obviously make searching the metadata more difficult, especially if the government has to contact multiple firms to get data rather than going to a single source. And why on earth do the panel members trust employees of Verizon and AT&T–much less of some potential future private corporation that would hold metadata records from all of the existing telecom firms–more than they trust the employees of the NSA?

Those NSA employees are carefully vetted and overseen and they operate with an ethos of service to the nation. Why should we repose more trust in random telecom company employees, who are motivated (and rightly so) by profits not patriotism, to hold records that the panel believes are so important? Elsewhere in the report, the panel calls for cutting back or eliminating the use of private firms to do background checks on intelligence community employees such as Edward Snowden. But while reining in private firms in one area, the panel seems to be reposing vast trust in them in another area.

Is the principle here that Big Business is more trustworthy than the U.S. government? This is a curious position for a panel appointed by a liberal Democratic administration to take, given that Democrats are normally suspicious of the excesses of big business, and rightly so given the fraud committed by large firms such as Qwest and WorldCom (both, interestingly enough, telecom companies). Are we supposed to believe our data is safer with Bernie Ebbers (the former Worldcom CEO who is now in jail) than with Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA?

In reality neither big corporations nor the government should automatically be trusted. In both cases safeguards and oversight need to be built in to prevent abuse. Such a system was built after 9/11 and it seems to be functioning well. It’s hard to see why we should mess with something that’s working and run the risk of making life easier for terrorists.

Sure, Snowden’s revelations are embarrassing. But let’s not compound the embarrassment by doing things we will regret later–as happened once before, in the 1970s, when Congress and the Carter administration severely hampered our intelligence capabilities in the wake of a series of scandals. Today, by contrast, the only scandal is that Snowden has turned traitor; there is no sign that the NSA is doing anything it isn’t authorized to do or that the U.S. has become a less free place over the last decade because of its activities. In other words, the review panel is offering solutions to address a nonexistent problem.

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NSA, Metadata, and the Constitution

If any evidence were needed that judicial activism is not merely a problem of the left, look at what a couple of conservative judicial activists pulled off yesterday in a case involving one of our most important national security safeguards–the NSA’s monitoring of terrorist communications.

Larry Klayman is a professional plaintiff who has filed too many cases to count. (He has even gone to court against the organization he founded and then left, Judicial Watch.) He first came to public attention pursuing various far-fetched allegations against the Clintons; more recently he has been pursuing the conspiratorial “birther” claim that President Obama should be thrown out of office because he supposedly wasn’t born in this country. He has also been quoted as saying that conservatives should demand “that this president leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up.”

Klayman’s latest cause is the NSA’s collection of “metadata” which has been irresponsibly revealed by Edward Snowden. This is the NSA program that collects information on which telephone numbers are in contact with each other so that links among terrorist plotters can be detected. Mind you, the NSA can’t actually listen in to the content of these communications without a court order. It can only search for patterns so that if an al-Qaeda mastermind abroad calls someone in the United States, that phone number can be tagged for further investigation. This is considerably less intrusive than the use of surveillance cameras in public places by organizations such as the New York Police Department or Macy’s which can monitor individuals’ movements–and, more to the point, it’s a lot less intrusive than the kind of data that big companies such as Amazon and Google compile on their customers, which includes their Internet browsing habits.

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If any evidence were needed that judicial activism is not merely a problem of the left, look at what a couple of conservative judicial activists pulled off yesterday in a case involving one of our most important national security safeguards–the NSA’s monitoring of terrorist communications.

Larry Klayman is a professional plaintiff who has filed too many cases to count. (He has even gone to court against the organization he founded and then left, Judicial Watch.) He first came to public attention pursuing various far-fetched allegations against the Clintons; more recently he has been pursuing the conspiratorial “birther” claim that President Obama should be thrown out of office because he supposedly wasn’t born in this country. He has also been quoted as saying that conservatives should demand “that this president leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up.”

Klayman’s latest cause is the NSA’s collection of “metadata” which has been irresponsibly revealed by Edward Snowden. This is the NSA program that collects information on which telephone numbers are in contact with each other so that links among terrorist plotters can be detected. Mind you, the NSA can’t actually listen in to the content of these communications without a court order. It can only search for patterns so that if an al-Qaeda mastermind abroad calls someone in the United States, that phone number can be tagged for further investigation. This is considerably less intrusive than the use of surveillance cameras in public places by organizations such as the New York Police Department or Macy’s which can monitor individuals’ movements–and, more to the point, it’s a lot less intrusive than the kind of data that big companies such as Amazon and Google compile on their customers, which includes their Internet browsing habits.

Yet Klayman did not choose to sue the NYPD or Google–at least not that I know of. (Given his litigious nature–he doesn’t seem to have a job other than filing suits–such cases may well be pending.) He chose to sue the NSA over its collection of metadata, claiming that the NSA was infringing on his personal liberties by collecting his metadata–as if Larry Klayman were so important a personage that the NSA was actually going to devote time and resources to monitoring him.

Such suits are almost as common as spam emails and about as significant. The difference in this case is that a federal judge, Richard J. Leon of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, chose to grant Klayman an injunction against the NSA. Sort of. Leon actually stayed his own injunction in a moment of self-awareness or perhaps self-protection–because if he hadn’t done so, an appeals court undoubtedly would have.

Leon must know that the odds of his ruling being upheld on review are slim to none. He claims that the NSA is violating the Fourth Amendment with its “almost Orwellian” program and adds: “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying it and analyzing it without judicial approval.”

In reality, the NSA program has been fully authorized by the USA Patriot Act and reviewed on a regular basis by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court whose members are picked by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has previously ruled (in Smith v. Maryland, a 1979 case) that individuals have no expectation of privacy in metadata, and judicial review is built into the process to make sure that the NSA abides by the rules. So is congressional review. The appropriate committees of Congress have been kept fully informed of what NSA has been up to, and members with oversight of intelligence activities have voiced support for these efforts. (See this Slate article for a list of supportive comments from members of the House and Senate.)

The practical significance of Leon’s ruling is apt to be slight. The future of the NSA programs is going to be decided above his pay grade–by the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court, not by a lone federal district judge. This will, however, no doubt fuel Klayman’s fund-raising (in typically bombastic fashion he is claiming this is the “biggest ruling in the history of government litigation”) and allow him to file ever more suits.

But while the legal significance of Leon’s order is not great, it is symbolic of how some libertarians of the right have joined with libertarians of the left to try to eviscerate some of the most effective defenses we have against terrorist attacks. So far the center has held–the president and leaders of Congress have recognized that the NSA’s programs are too important to become a partisan football. But with a presidential review group set to submit a call for greater restrictions on NSA activities, there is cause for concern that the center may not hold much longer. If so, the gain in our civil liberties will be slight to nonexistent (who aside from Larry Klayman stays up nights worrying about whether the NSA is collecting metadata on our calls?), while the harm to our national security will be palpable.

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Britain Pushes Back on Snowden

Edward Snowden’s defenders–and, alas, he has many, even after he has shown his true colors by taking refuge in Vladimir Putin’s illiberal fiefdom–claim that he is not damaging American security but simply fostering a much-needed debate about once-secret NSA surveillance.

That’s not how our British allies see it. The chiefs of the major British intelligence agencies–MI5, MI6, and GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters, the British counterpart to NSA)–have just testified before Parliament that his leaks have done grave harm to British security and aided al-Qaeda. The New York Times reports:

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Edward Snowden’s defenders–and, alas, he has many, even after he has shown his true colors by taking refuge in Vladimir Putin’s illiberal fiefdom–claim that he is not damaging American security but simply fostering a much-needed debate about once-secret NSA surveillance.

That’s not how our British allies see it. The chiefs of the major British intelligence agencies–MI5, MI6, and GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters, the British counterpart to NSA)–have just testified before Parliament that his leaks have done grave harm to British security and aided al-Qaeda. The New York Times reports:

“The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging, and they’ve put our operations at risk,” said John Sawers, the head of the foreign intelligence service, MI6. “It’s clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee. Al Qaeda is lapping it up.”

Iain Lobban, the director of the eavesdropping agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, said terrorist groups in Afghanistan, South Asia and the Middle East “and closer to home” have discussed the Snowden revelations. They have assessed “the communications packages they use now and the communication packages they wish to move to,” he said, “to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods.”

Mr. Lobban called that “a direct consequence” of the leaks, adding: “Yes, I can say that explicitly. The cumulative effect of global media coverage will make our job far, far harder for years to come.”

Naturally Snowden and his acolytes will dispute such claims as being self-serving propaganda from unaccountable spy chiefs. And really there is no way to prove the damage Snowden has done. Even if terrorist plots are carried out in the future and innocents die, there is no assurance they would have been disrupted if Snowden had not come forward to inform the whole world of the NSA’s capabilities.

But at the very least let us not compound the damage that this arrogant traitor–who takes upon himself the role of determining which intelligence operations are legitimate and which are not–has done by curbing or shutting down the NSA’s surveillance. As they used to say after 9/11: that would be allowing the terrorists to win.

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Falling for Snowden’s Delusions

It scarcely seems possible, but Edward Snowden gets more odious by the day. It’s bad enough that he has leaked to the world top-secret details of highly sensitive and important NSA surveillance operations, thus doing more damage to American national security than a baker’s dozen of previous spies. What’s even more galling is that, while hiding in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, he has the nerve to position himself as a saintly whistle-blower who is striking a blow for truth, justice, and the American way.

The reality is precisely the opposite: He is empowering freedom’s enemies, from Beijing to Moscow to the western frontier region of Pakistan where al-Qaeda’s top leaders shelter, by revealing to them the secrets of how the NSA monitors them. At the same time he is spreading dissension and disunity in the Western alliance by revealing how the U.S. spies on its allies–but without saying anything about how those allies spy on us.

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It scarcely seems possible, but Edward Snowden gets more odious by the day. It’s bad enough that he has leaked to the world top-secret details of highly sensitive and important NSA surveillance operations, thus doing more damage to American national security than a baker’s dozen of previous spies. What’s even more galling is that, while hiding in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, he has the nerve to position himself as a saintly whistle-blower who is striking a blow for truth, justice, and the American way.

The reality is precisely the opposite: He is empowering freedom’s enemies, from Beijing to Moscow to the western frontier region of Pakistan where al-Qaeda’s top leaders shelter, by revealing to them the secrets of how the NSA monitors them. At the same time he is spreading dissension and disunity in the Western alliance by revealing how the U.S. spies on its allies–but without saying anything about how those allies spy on us.

It is hard not to gag while reading Snowden’s overblown “manifesto for truth” published in Der Spiegel. “Citizens have to fight suppression of information on matters of vital public importance,” he writes. “To tell the truth is not a crime.” True, but citizens don’t have the right to reveal on their own authority highly classified information that they have pledged to keep secret.

If he had wanted to be a whistleblower, Snowden should have notified the congressional intelligence committees of the activities he objected to. The fact that he did not do so is, of course, because there was nothing to blow the whistle on–there is no evidence that NSA has done anything it is not authorized to do or that it has acted in any way for ulterior personal or political motives.

However he tries to spin it, Snowden is a traitor to the United States who is under the effective control of the FSB. This is the successor agency to the KGB, and still one of the world’s most illiberal intelligence services–and one whose electronic surveillance activities rival those of the NSA and are far more malignant because they can result in the incarceration of political dissidents. It is sad to see all too many well-intentioned people in the West fall for Snowden’s self-serving delusions, which do so much to harm not only the security of the U.S. but also of allies such as Germany.

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Multilateral Counterterrorism and the Sovereignty Objection

Yesterday I expressed doubt that there would be major disruptions to U.S.-European security cooperation because of the latest “revelations” that allies spy on each other. European leaders would, I acknowledged, have to at least feign outrage to placate public opinion, but it’s likely to end there. Today the New York Times offers some more evidence to support this. The paper reports that the French and German governments have agreed to “hold talks” on new guidelines for mutual snooping with the United States.

The noncommittal language is an indication that the leaders of those countries will lodge a complaint with the Obama administration as an end in itself. As for any tangible changes in cooperation with the U.S., Angela Merkel sought to either dismiss or defuse such speculation. She was clear that she wouldn’t seriously consider ending U.S.-EU free-trade negotiations; she was cool to suspending data-sharing agreements for joint counterterrorism programs; and she seems to have succeeded in delaying consideration of increased privacy rules that would hamper American technology companies.

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Yesterday I expressed doubt that there would be major disruptions to U.S.-European security cooperation because of the latest “revelations” that allies spy on each other. European leaders would, I acknowledged, have to at least feign outrage to placate public opinion, but it’s likely to end there. Today the New York Times offers some more evidence to support this. The paper reports that the French and German governments have agreed to “hold talks” on new guidelines for mutual snooping with the United States.

The noncommittal language is an indication that the leaders of those countries will lodge a complaint with the Obama administration as an end in itself. As for any tangible changes in cooperation with the U.S., Angela Merkel sought to either dismiss or defuse such speculation. She was clear that she wouldn’t seriously consider ending U.S.-EU free-trade negotiations; she was cool to suspending data-sharing agreements for joint counterterrorism programs; and she seems to have succeeded in delaying consideration of increased privacy rules that would hamper American technology companies.

Any threats to the free-trade negotiations would reek of excuse-making: France has already threatened the viability of trade talks over its insistence on protecting its glorified soft-core pornographers from international competition. Torpedoing negotiations over security concerns would just enable them to put a more respectable gloss on protectionist impulses. Attacking cooperating private-sector behemoths like Google comes off as petty and punitive, and Britain successfully stepped in to ensure cooler heads would ultimately prevail on that score.

Counterterrorism efforts are likely to remain the focus of the controversy, since that’s the overarching point of contention. Yet it won’t be easy to disentangle aspects of the NSA’s program in Europe that France and Germany can do without from those on which they, too, rely. Today’s CNN report on the rift explains the bind the Europeans have found themselves in when seeking to protest the alleged phone-tapping of European heads of state:

The Europeans have been very grateful to share the benefits of the NSA’s immense data-gathering abilities in counter-terrorism and other fields. U.S. diplomatic cables disclosed by WikiLeaks show Germany was enthusiastic in 2009 and 2010 for closer links with the NSA to develop what is known as a High Resolution Optical System (HiROS) — a highly advanced “constellation” of reconnaissance satellites. One cable from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin said: “Germany anticipates that their emergence as a world leader in overhead reconnaissance will generate interest from the USG and envisions an expansion of the intelligence relationship.”

The 9/11 attacks changed espionage beyond recognition, leading to massive investment in the U.S. in “technical means” — the flagship of which is the enormous NSA data center being completed in Bluffdale, Utah. Its computing power, according to the specialist online publication govtech.com is “equivalent to the capacity of 62 billion iPhone 5s.” But 9/11 also shifted the balance between intelligence-gathering and civil liberties, with the U.S. federal government acquiring new powers in the fight against terrorism — some sanctioned by Congress but others ill-defined.

The technology that allows such enormous data-harvesting cannot be put back in the box, but the limits to its use pose an equally huge challenge. Ultimately, the Europeans need to collaborate with the U.S. on intelligence-gathering, to deal with international terrorism, cyber threats and organized crime. But the Snowden allegations, whether reported accurately or not, have changed the public perception and mood in Europe, obliging leaders like Merkel to take a tougher stand.

This duality is not limited to Europe. The United States is repeatedly accused of violating the sovereignty of nations in public with whom they are colluding in private. Public opinion on this score is seen as something to be managed by leaders who must carefully tend to domestic populist instincts with rhetoric that contrasts sharply with their actions.

Just this week Bob Woodward and Greg Miller reported on how Pakistan fits into this picture. Here is their lead: “Despite repeatedly denouncing the CIA’s drone campaign, top officials in Pakistan’s government have for years secretly endorsed the program and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts, according to top-secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos obtained by The Washington Post.”

Pakistan is a hotbed of anti-American sentiment in part due to the mutually beneficial security cooperation that Pakistan both conducts and undercuts as it seeks to protect itself from the very terrorist groups it enables. The Washington Post article nods toward Pakistani cooperation with the drone program as a “poorly kept” secret, which it is. But the documents show, the Post notes, “the explicit nature” of the bilateral agreement on drones.

Nonetheless, Pakistan’s foreign ministry told the Post that a new day has dawned and the current Pakistani government is united in its opposition to drone strikes. It’s plausible, however, that the revelations will have the opposite effect. “I think people knew it already, but this makes it much more obvious, and the [Pakistani] media and others will have to cool off,” a retired Pakistani general told the Post. That’s because it’s not so easy to portray it as a violation of sovereignty when it is very much not a violation of sovereignty–a lesson the Europeans should keep in mind.

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Nixon’s Ghost and the Specter of Hypocrisy

In August 2008, the New York Times checked in on the celebrities expected to attend the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions, and came to an unsurprising tally: “When it comes to big name entertainment and partying, it looks like the Democratic National Convention in Denver later this month might have an edge over the Republican gathering in St. Paul in early September.”

One of the many stars lining up on the Democratic side to spread the gospel of Barack was the actor Maggie Gyllenhaal, who continued to support President Obama in his bid for reelection again four years later. But Gyllenhaal is suddenly not so enthusiastic about the government. She is unnerved by the revelations about the NSA, and has joined an organization to rally this weekend called Stop Watching Us. She and other Hollywood celebrities, such as John Cusack, released a promotional video, which the ACLU is enthusiastically sharing. There’s one curious element to the video, however: it targets, repeatedly, one president: Richard Nixon.

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In August 2008, the New York Times checked in on the celebrities expected to attend the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions, and came to an unsurprising tally: “When it comes to big name entertainment and partying, it looks like the Democratic National Convention in Denver later this month might have an edge over the Republican gathering in St. Paul in early September.”

One of the many stars lining up on the Democratic side to spread the gospel of Barack was the actor Maggie Gyllenhaal, who continued to support President Obama in his bid for reelection again four years later. But Gyllenhaal is suddenly not so enthusiastic about the government. She is unnerved by the revelations about the NSA, and has joined an organization to rally this weekend called Stop Watching Us. She and other Hollywood celebrities, such as John Cusack, released a promotional video, which the ACLU is enthusiastically sharing. There’s one curious element to the video, however: it targets, repeatedly, one president: Richard Nixon.

Now in fairness, the video also includes appearances and commentary by Oliver Stone, so perhaps it’s not meant to be taken seriously anyway. But it’s a good example of the cognitive dissonance this president has inspired in his followers. Nixon, who takes a starring role in the video, remains the mascot for government intrusion and overreach.

At the rally, Michigan Republican Congressman Justin Amash will join such luminaries as Noami Wolf and Dennis Kucinich to speak about the dangers of, presumably, the Nixon administration’s crackdown on domestic liberty, his failing strategy in Vietnam, his belligerence toward Cuba, and his outdated anti-Communism. Oliver Stone does not appear slated to speak at the rally, so Harry Truman will be spared the Nixon treatment.

But at least Cusack and Co.’s outrage seems genuine. While the ACLU rallies against Nixon, our allies abroad are complaining about more phone-tapping allegations, specifically against France and Germany. Marc Ambinder throws some cold water on the outrage there too:

Of course, Brazil, France, Germany, and Mexico do exactly the same thing. They want their leaders to gain a decision advantage in the give and take between countries. They want to know what U.S. policymakers will do before the Americans do it. And in the case of Brazil and France, they aggressively spy on the United States, on U.S. citizens and politicians, in order to collect that information. The difference lies in the scale of intelligence collection: The U.S. has the most effective, most distributed, most sophisticated intelligence community in the West. It is Goliath. And other countries, rightly in their mind, are envious.

“The magnitude of the eavesdropping is what shocked us,” former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told France Info radio. “Let’s be honest, we eavesdrop too. Everyone is listening to everyone else.”

The difference, he added, is that “we don’t have the same means as the United States — which makes us jealous.”

But there’s a limit to the utility of pointing out others’ hypocrisy. A Foreign Affairs essay making the rounds today is from Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore, arguing that the real damage from the WikiLeaks and Snowden revelations is that they will expose America’s hypocrisy. And acting hypocritically, they write, is a crucial and underappreciated strategic necessity:

Of course, the United States is far from the only hypocrite in international politics. But the United States’ hypocrisy matters more than that of other countries. That’s because most of the world today lives within an order that the United States built, one that is both underwritten by U.S. power and legitimated by liberal ideas. American commitments to the rule of law, democracy, and free trade are embedded in the multilateral institutions that the country helped establish after World War II, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and later the World Trade Organization. Despite recent challenges to U.S. preeminence, from the Iraq war to the financial crisis, the international order remains an American one.

This system needs the lubricating oil of hypocrisy to keep its gears turning. To ensure that the world order continues to be seen as legitimate, U.S. officials must regularly promote and claim fealty to its core liberal principles; the United States cannot impose its hegemony through force alone. But as the recent leaks have shown, Washington is also unable to consistently abide by the values that it trumpets. This disconnect creates the risk that other states might decide that the U.S.-led order is fundamentally illegitimate.

I remain skeptical, however. It’s not just that our allies act hypocritically; it’s that they want us to act hypocritically. If nations cater first and foremost to their interests, then they care about the policies of the United States, not the gap between public rhetoric and action. The same is true for the domestic audience: most Americans were happy that President Obama continued many of the anti-terrorism methods used by the Bush administration, because they are vital to national security.

Obama’s hypocrisy was and continues to be noted by conservatives. But conservatives don’t oppose the policies that result from that hypocrisy, because the policies matter more than campaign promises. That is not to say that the public approves of politicians being dishonest to gain office: Obama may have genuinely thought what Bush was doing was wrong and unnecessary until he began getting intelligence briefings. Politicians who don’t have access to all the information are not liars just because they later discovered that their initial instincts were wrong.

Likewise, our allies abroad benefit tremendously from the American national-security infrastructure. They might be angered by the Snowden leaks, but that’s because they’re hypocrites too, and the leaks open them up to domestic criticism for their own hypocrisy. The leaks are plenty damaging to national security, but it’s unlikely they’re going to lose the U.S. the cooperation and support of allies who rely on American power projection and won’t presume to pretend otherwise.

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A Mindboggling NSA/CIA Blunder

Officials at the National Security Agency are lobbing a familiar critique at the Obama administration. Once the extent of the NSA’s sweeping surveillance was revealed and the organization became controversial, the president has declined to fully engage the public-relations battle on the NSA’s behalf. The Obama administration has a tendency to employ controversial security agencies and actions without staunchly defending their legitimacy, which is often interpreted as ambivalence.

As Shane Harris notes, officials in the security establishment see it as more than just a pride issue: “If left unchecked, it could start to erode the trusted relationships that have been at the heart of how the U.S. government handles global threats since 9/11.” But if President Obama feels the need to respond to the NSA’s most recent complaints, he should tell them the following: Help me help you.

A couple of recent news stories highlight just how difficult the NSA has made the job of defending it in the public sphere. The most recent, but also the most damaging to the NSA’s credibility, is today’s New York Times report:

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Officials at the National Security Agency are lobbing a familiar critique at the Obama administration. Once the extent of the NSA’s sweeping surveillance was revealed and the organization became controversial, the president has declined to fully engage the public-relations battle on the NSA’s behalf. The Obama administration has a tendency to employ controversial security agencies and actions without staunchly defending their legitimacy, which is often interpreted as ambivalence.

As Shane Harris notes, officials in the security establishment see it as more than just a pride issue: “If left unchecked, it could start to erode the trusted relationships that have been at the heart of how the U.S. government handles global threats since 9/11.” But if President Obama feels the need to respond to the NSA’s most recent complaints, he should tell them the following: Help me help you.

A couple of recent news stories highlight just how difficult the NSA has made the job of defending it in the public sphere. The most recent, but also the most damaging to the NSA’s credibility, is today’s New York Times report:

Just as Edward J. Snowden was preparing to leave Geneva and a job as a C.I.A. technician in 2009, his supervisor wrote a derogatory report in his personnel file, noting a distinct change in the young man’s behavior and work habits, as well as a troubling suspicion.

The C.I.A. suspected that Mr. Snowden was trying to break into classified computer files to which he was not authorized to have access, and decided to send him home, according to two senior American officials.

But the red flags went unheeded. Mr. Snowden left the C.I.A. to become a contractor for the National Security Agency, and four years later he leaked thousands of classified documents. The supervisor’s cautionary note and the C.I.A.’s suspicions apparently were not forwarded to the N.S.A. or its contractors, and surfaced only after federal investigators began scrutinizing Mr. Snowden’s record once the documents began spilling out, intelligence and law enforcement officials said.

“It slipped through the cracks,” one veteran law enforcement official said of the report.

Ahem. It slipped through the cracks? The CIA sent Snowden home because he was trying to hack into classified intelligence files and he was then hired by the National Security Agency and given clearance. The Times then adds this paraphrased admission from its sources, which deserves some kind of award for understatement: “In hindsight, officials said, the report by the C.I.A. supervisor and the agency’s suspicions might have been the first serious warnings of the disclosures to come, and the biggest missed opportunity to review Mr. Snowden’s top-secret clearance or at least put his future work at the N.S.A. under much greater scrutiny.”

Yes, the CIA employee trying to hack into classified intel files should not have been hired by the NSA and given top-secret clearance. That is, surely, one lesson no one should have needed to learn by trial and error.

Now, it looks like this colossal blunder was a team effort. The CIA should have made sure someone saw this at the NSA, if in fact this report was not forwarded to the agency. But it also calls into question the seriousness with which the NSA handles hiring, contracting, background checks, and the like. If the hiring system at the NSA is not designed to prevent people like Edward Snowden from attaining top-secret clearance, then the system needs some reform.

And this goes to the question of credibility, which is so crucial to what the NSA does. When the ObamaCare website went live this week and it turned out to have been an utter failure of design and security, as well as a waste of money, people asked a reasonable question: can this administration be trusted with the power it so consistently demands?

Because of the nature of the NSA’s mission, Americans are absolutely entitled (in fact, they should be encouraged) to ask that question of the NSA: can this super-secret spy organization be trusted with the information to which it has access? Part of that trust is earned by convincing the public that the NSA won’t misuse or abuse its powers. But an equally important part is being able to state with confidence that the wrong people–people who are inclined to abuse that power–won’t have access. That is, it’s not just about the NSA’s institutional policy. It’s also about its basic competence and personnel oversight.

The NSA’s desire for the president to show his support for the hard-working and mostly anonymous intelligence officials is legitimate–not just as a matter of principle (the president benefits politically from the NSA’s successes) but also as a matter of practicality, since the erosion of popular support for the NSA could mean the erosion of congressional support, which could endanger the NSA’s funding. But complaints such as this from the NSA’s former general counsel strike me as unfair:

“The President is uncomfortable defending this. Maybe he spends too much time reading blogs on the left,” Baker said.

Or maybe he reads the newspapers. The Snowden affair was a major headache for the president, and also something of an embarrassment. But it was not a scandal of the president’s own making. Instead, it seems to have been a result of malicious intent on Snowden’s part and staggering incompetence on the part of the CIA and NSA. If the NSA wants the president to use his pulpit to defend the broad powers of the NSA, they’re going to have to give him more that’s worth defending.

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