Commentary Magazine


Topic: Edward Snowden

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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NY Times Suddenly Concerned About Leaks

It’s nice to see the New York Times—one of the publications that has served as a megaphone for Edward Snowden—is concerned about the damage that leaks can do to national security. At least when they come from other publications.

The Times this morning featured a front-page article reporting: “Since news reports in early August revealed that the United States intercepted messages between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of Al Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, discussing an imminent terrorist attack, analysts have detected a sharp drop in the terrorists’ use of a major communications channel that the authorities were monitoring. Since August, senior American officials have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives.”

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It’s nice to see the New York Times—one of the publications that has served as a megaphone for Edward Snowden—is concerned about the damage that leaks can do to national security. At least when they come from other publications.

The Times this morning featured a front-page article reporting: “Since news reports in early August revealed that the United States intercepted messages between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of Al Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, discussing an imminent terrorist attack, analysts have detected a sharp drop in the terrorists’ use of a major communications channel that the authorities were monitoring. Since August, senior American officials have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives.”

The “news report” in question, naming Zawahiri and Wuhayshi, appeared in McClatchy newspapers on Aug. 4. Two days earlier the Times itself had reported on the foiled terror plot, a victory which it attributed to the American interception of “electronic communications … among senior operatives of Al Qaeda.” The Times now reveals that it too knew the identity of the operatives in question but chose to withhold them on security grounds at the request of senior U.S. officials, at least until McClatchy came forth with its own, more specific revelations.

The Times would now have you believe that all of the resulting damage was due to the McClatchy leak, not to the Times leak, and moreover that the damage incurred was considerably more substantial than that caused by Snowden—whose latest revelations concerning NSA mining of metadata appeared on the Times front page as recently as Sunday. No wonder McClatchy’s Washington bureau chief finds the Times article an “odd” one.

There is certainly room to debate whether the Times, too, has caused damage to national security with its leaks not only of the Zawahiri-Wuhayshi intercepts but also of Snowden’s revelations more generally. As the Times’s own story today concedes: “Shortly after Mr. Snowden leaked documents about the secret N.S.A. surveillance programs, chat rooms and Web sites used by jihadis and prospective recruits advised users how to avoid N.S.A. detection, from telling them to avoid using Skype to recommending specific online software programs like MS2 to keep spies from tracking their computers’ physical locations.”

The article also quotes anonymously some “senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials” who say “that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the impact of the messages between the Qaeda leaders from Mr. Snowden’s overall disclosures, and that the decline [in intercepts] is more likely a combination of the two.”

It is pretty rich of the Times, then, to be piling blame on a rival news organization when it has done as much as any media outlet to publish government secrets that can be of use to our enemies.

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Not News: The U.S. and Israel Cooperate

On her blog today, Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, took issue with her paper’s news judgment. Responding to complaints from readers, she said she disagreed with the paper’s decision not to run a piece following up on a Guardian article alleging that the United States and Israel have shared intelligence that might be derived from intercepts of communications by the National Security Agency. Though I rarely concur with many if not most of the choices made by the Grey Lady’s editors, in this case I think managing editor Dean Baquet was right: the Guardian, which is the main conduit for stories stemming from the leaks of classified U.S. material by Edward Snowden, had hyped a detail gleaned from the stolen material that was neither “significant or surprising.” Though those hostile to Israel (such as Snowden’s journalistic partner Glenn Greenwald) may think this is worth treating as if it were a scandal, the notion that the two allies share data about terrorist suspects or related material is not news. Nor is it anything for anyone who cares about protecting either country from Islamist terrorists to worry about.

While Sullivan apparently thinks anything about the NSA intercepts is newsworthy and may well have succumbed to the cliché about Jews being news, this mini-controversy about what the Times publishes should give us insight into much of the breathless hype about the government’s data mining. Though libertarians, isolationists, and critics of big government have been feeding public paranoia about the NSA, this particular nugget of information tells us just how uncontroversial much of the agency’s activity has been. Just as the intercepts are both legal and a reasonable use of resources, so, too, is the NSA’s sharing of some of material with a country that shares much of its own considerable intelligence resources with the United States. The attempt to render this useful cooperation controversial or, as the Guardian implies, illegal does nothing to protect civil liberties while potentially damaging U.S. national security.

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On her blog today, Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, took issue with her paper’s news judgment. Responding to complaints from readers, she said she disagreed with the paper’s decision not to run a piece following up on a Guardian article alleging that the United States and Israel have shared intelligence that might be derived from intercepts of communications by the National Security Agency. Though I rarely concur with many if not most of the choices made by the Grey Lady’s editors, in this case I think managing editor Dean Baquet was right: the Guardian, which is the main conduit for stories stemming from the leaks of classified U.S. material by Edward Snowden, had hyped a detail gleaned from the stolen material that was neither “significant or surprising.” Though those hostile to Israel (such as Snowden’s journalistic partner Glenn Greenwald) may think this is worth treating as if it were a scandal, the notion that the two allies share data about terrorist suspects or related material is not news. Nor is it anything for anyone who cares about protecting either country from Islamist terrorists to worry about.

While Sullivan apparently thinks anything about the NSA intercepts is newsworthy and may well have succumbed to the cliché about Jews being news, this mini-controversy about what the Times publishes should give us insight into much of the breathless hype about the government’s data mining. Though libertarians, isolationists, and critics of big government have been feeding public paranoia about the NSA, this particular nugget of information tells us just how uncontroversial much of the agency’s activity has been. Just as the intercepts are both legal and a reasonable use of resources, so, too, is the NSA’s sharing of some of material with a country that shares much of its own considerable intelligence resources with the United States. The attempt to render this useful cooperation controversial or, as the Guardian implies, illegal does nothing to protect civil liberties while potentially damaging U.S. national security.

The Guardian’s attempt to blow this detail about Israel into a major aspect of the NSA falls flat. The lede of the piece centers on the fact that some of what is shared with Israel is “raw intelligence” without “sifting it to remove information about U.S. citizens.” The implication is that the NSA is not only wrongly spying on American citizens but that it is facilitating Israel’s efforts to do the same thing. It then goes on to repeat gossip about Israel spying on the U.S. government and attempts to imply that the relationship between the two countries is lopsided in favor of the Jewish state even if it acknowledges further down that many allies, including the U.S., spy on each other.

First, it is far from clear that any sharing of intelligence data with Israel is illegal or even violates government guidelines. As even the article notes, anything shared with Israel is done under strict rules that prevent any targeting of U.S. individuals and limits use of the information.

Moreover, while there is some understandable concern about the broad-based nature of the NSA intercepts that could occasionally cause them to scrutinize material that is not pertinent to their mission, this story illustrates just the opposite of what most people were worried about. After all, the U.S. is not handing over billions of files but rather individual cases that clearly merit a closer look. Anyone whose “privacy” is intruded upon in such cases is not a random average citizen but most likely someone with clear connections to suspicious if not dangerous foreign contacts. Giving the Israelis a closer look at such information merely enhances the ability of the U.S. to defend our homeland and is not merely a gift to Jerusalem.

While in the anti-Zionist universe in which the Guardian operates any kind of cooperation with Israel is suspect, even the editors of the Times know that the intelligence agencies of the two countries have worked closely together to fight terrorism for many years. Israel has long punched far above its weight in terms of the strategic assistance it gives the United States. While Israel cannot compete with the vast technological resources that the U.S. can bring to bear on the problem, its Mossad is renowned for its skill in ferreting out information about Arab and Muslim radicals. It is obviously in the best interests of the West that the two cooperate, and that is exactly what they should be doing. 

As for any of this being such a big secret, as anyone who paid attention to the presidential campaign last year knows, President Obama and his surrogates spent a disproportionate amount of time bragging about how much he had improved security cooperation between the two countries.

As for the talk about spying, again none of this is new or surprising. All countries, even allies, spy on each other and that includes U.S. spooks that do what they can to learn all of Israel’s secrets.

At the heart of the outrage about the Snowden leaks is a belief on the part of some, especially Greenwald and the Guardian, that there is something inherently wrong with the work of the NSA in fighting Islamist terror. Those who wish to criminalize legal activity that is aimed at enemies of the United States speak of civil liberties being violated, but their main agenda might well be termed counter-counter-terrorism. If that effort dovetails with the anti-Israel agenda of others on the left or the far right, that suits them just fine. But if they succeed, it will be the safety of Americans that will suffer.

The U.S.-Israel alliance is based on common values but also on an understanding that they share common enemies as well. That the Times sees nothing remarkable in this shows that for all of their demonstrated anti-Israel bias, they are still light years removed from the hardened anti-Zionist prejudice that is business as usual at the Guardian and other British papers.

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Al-Qaeda’s Willing Idiots in the Media

In the last week as the debate over intervention in Syria continued, some on the right have taken to referring to the prospect as President Obama’s war for al-Qaeda. Senator Ted Cruz went further, claiming that the president was transforming the U.S. Armed Forces into al-Qaeda’s Air Force. This is utterly irresponsible, not only because it panders to conspiracy theories but also because it distorts the discussion about the opposition to the Assad regime in an effort to sweep away concerns about giving the butcher of Damascus impunity to commit further atrocities. But those eager to focus on those who are actually aiding al-Qaeda—as opposed to merely smearing their political opponents—have a better target for their ire than the president. Today’s Washington Post contains an article based on leaks of classified information by Edward Snowden that can best be described as a field guide for terrorists seeking to combat U.S. drones.

The piece, which is based on a “top-secret report” on the subject titled “Threats to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” details vulnerabilities of drones and discusses the concerted efforts, including the creation of cells of engineers, to “shoot down, jam and remotely hijack” U.S. aircraft. This is fascinating stuff, but though the Post claims many details about drone capabilities are already in the public domain and that it held back some of the material Snowden has illegally leaked, it nevertheless constitutes a major breach of security. Though Snowden and his friends at the Post and elsewhere may think they are bolstering liberty with these disclosures, that is a delusion. As with much of what Snowden and his journalist collaborators have published since he fled the country with a computer full of secrets about the war on al-Qaeda, it is hard to know how much these revelations help the terrorists. Whatever the exact extent of damage to America’s counter-terrorist campaign, there’s little doubt it is a favor to al-Qaeda and hurts the United States. Publishing these kind of operational details about drones does nothing to advance the debate about whether the government should use them against terrorists. But it does raise serious questions about the motives of publications that have come to believe that exposing any details—even those that are directly related to shooting down U.S. aircraft—is fair game for the press.

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In the last week as the debate over intervention in Syria continued, some on the right have taken to referring to the prospect as President Obama’s war for al-Qaeda. Senator Ted Cruz went further, claiming that the president was transforming the U.S. Armed Forces into al-Qaeda’s Air Force. This is utterly irresponsible, not only because it panders to conspiracy theories but also because it distorts the discussion about the opposition to the Assad regime in an effort to sweep away concerns about giving the butcher of Damascus impunity to commit further atrocities. But those eager to focus on those who are actually aiding al-Qaeda—as opposed to merely smearing their political opponents—have a better target for their ire than the president. Today’s Washington Post contains an article based on leaks of classified information by Edward Snowden that can best be described as a field guide for terrorists seeking to combat U.S. drones.

The piece, which is based on a “top-secret report” on the subject titled “Threats to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” details vulnerabilities of drones and discusses the concerted efforts, including the creation of cells of engineers, to “shoot down, jam and remotely hijack” U.S. aircraft. This is fascinating stuff, but though the Post claims many details about drone capabilities are already in the public domain and that it held back some of the material Snowden has illegally leaked, it nevertheless constitutes a major breach of security. Though Snowden and his friends at the Post and elsewhere may think they are bolstering liberty with these disclosures, that is a delusion. As with much of what Snowden and his journalist collaborators have published since he fled the country with a computer full of secrets about the war on al-Qaeda, it is hard to know how much these revelations help the terrorists. Whatever the exact extent of damage to America’s counter-terrorist campaign, there’s little doubt it is a favor to al-Qaeda and hurts the United States. Publishing these kind of operational details about drones does nothing to advance the debate about whether the government should use them against terrorists. But it does raise serious questions about the motives of publications that have come to believe that exposing any details—even those that are directly related to shooting down U.S. aircraft—is fair game for the press.

It is the duty of the free press in our republic to hold the government accountable and to expose its doings to the light whenever possible. But there is a difference between press freedom and stripping the nation of its ability to defend itself. Whatever you may think about the Obama administration’s use of drones, they are part of an active American campaign to attack terrorists who are at war with the United States. Publishing material that directly relates to the ability of terrorists to block this campaign crosses the line that should exist between covering the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus and actively seeking to cripple their operations.

We live in an era in which groups like WikiLeaks and figures such as Snowden have taken upon themselves the job of waging war on the entire concept of American security. Their frame of reference is one that denies any need for secrecy even when it concerns the safety of active-service personnel or attacks against terrorist targets. You don’t need to support the idea of war in Syria or even approve of President Obama’s policies to understand this is a point of view that is incompatible with the nation’s ability to defend itself.

That major newspapers have in recent years adopted a stance toward the publication of classified material that is in many respects indistinguishable from that of WikiLeaks is shocking. Reports on drone vulnerabilities are, after all, not the moral equivalent of the Pentagon Papers—the landmark case about publication of classified reports—which was a historical document outlining American misadventures in Vietnam and labeled as classified only to spare the government embarrassment.

The Post story on drones is just the latest example of a trend in which it and other major publication such as the New York Times have taken it upon themselves to be the arbiter of what the public may know about security stories. While no one should treat everything labeled as “secret” by the Pentagon or the CIA as sacrosanct, you don’t need a security clearance to understand that a public discussion of how to shoot down or jam a drone aimed at al-Qaeda has little to do with democracy and everything to do with undermining the government’s ability to defend the American people.

Past generations of journalists understood that loyalty to their country sometimes had to supersede their innate desire to get scoops. If they don’t understand the difference between a free press and being the willing idiots of al-Qaeda, it’s time for the Post, the Times, and other papers to rethink their approach to these issues and to step back from their cooperation with Snowden.

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Of Course America Spies on the UN

The American agency directed to collect foreign intelligence for the United States government is currently collecting foreign intelligence for the United States government. If that doesn’t sound like much of a bombshell, it’s because it isn’t. Or, conversely, it’s because you are just a government “tool,” as Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg would describe you. That duality of extremes is ever-present in the world of the transparency activists trying to take down American spy networks.

In the New York Times Magazine profile of Laura Poitras, the activist working with Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, the author describes Greenwald as being “hailed as either a fearless defender of individual rights or a nefarious traitor, depending on your perspective.” In the world of the Times–and certainly that of Greenwald, Poitras, and Snowden–there is no other choice, just as to the self-aggrandizing Ellsberg you either believe he is the hero in his own saga and that Snowden is the hero in his, or you are giving up on the battle to keep your inner totalitarian at bay.

Pollsters fall into this trap too. As I wrote in July, Quinnipiac polled respondents on the following question: “Do you regard Edward Snowden, the national security consultant who released information to the media about the phone scanning program, as more of a traitor, or more of a whistle-blower?” Traitor or hero, traitor or hero–lather, rinse, repeat. But the truth, as always, is more complicated than that: in fact, Snowden most likely qualifies as neither a whistle blower nor a traitor. And sometimes the truth is downright mundane, as in the item with which I led off this post. This “revelation,” that spies spy, comes to us via Poitras, writing in Der Spiegel:

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The American agency directed to collect foreign intelligence for the United States government is currently collecting foreign intelligence for the United States government. If that doesn’t sound like much of a bombshell, it’s because it isn’t. Or, conversely, it’s because you are just a government “tool,” as Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg would describe you. That duality of extremes is ever-present in the world of the transparency activists trying to take down American spy networks.

In the New York Times Magazine profile of Laura Poitras, the activist working with Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, the author describes Greenwald as being “hailed as either a fearless defender of individual rights or a nefarious traitor, depending on your perspective.” In the world of the Times–and certainly that of Greenwald, Poitras, and Snowden–there is no other choice, just as to the self-aggrandizing Ellsberg you either believe he is the hero in his own saga and that Snowden is the hero in his, or you are giving up on the battle to keep your inner totalitarian at bay.

Pollsters fall into this trap too. As I wrote in July, Quinnipiac polled respondents on the following question: “Do you regard Edward Snowden, the national security consultant who released information to the media about the phone scanning program, as more of a traitor, or more of a whistle-blower?” Traitor or hero, traitor or hero–lather, rinse, repeat. But the truth, as always, is more complicated than that: in fact, Snowden most likely qualifies as neither a whistle blower nor a traitor. And sometimes the truth is downright mundane, as in the item with which I led off this post. This “revelation,” that spies spy, comes to us via Poitras, writing in Der Spiegel:

The internal NSA documents correspond to instructions from the State Department, which then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed off on in July 2009. With the 29-page report called “Reporting and Collection Needs: The United Nations,” the State Department called on its diplomats to collect information on key players of the UN.

According to this document, the diplomats were asked to gather numbers for phones, mobiles, pagers and fax machines. They were called on to amass phone and email directories, credit card and frequent-flier customer numbers, duty rosters, passwords and even biometric data.

When SPIEGEL reported on the confidential cable back in 2010, the State Department tried to deflect the criticism by saying that it was merely helping out other agencies. In reality, though, as the NSA documents now clearly show, they served as the basis for various clandestine operations targeting the UN and other countries.

Experts on the UN have long suspected that the organization has become a hotbed of activity for various intelligence agencies. After leaving Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet, former British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short admitted that in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003 she had seen transcripts of conversations by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The article details Poitras’s claim that the U.S. conducts surveillance on the EU and the United Nations. The UN is a dictator’s playground through which Western interests are relentlessly targeted and undermined and genocidal maniacs the world over are shielded from the consequences of their murderous depravity. This is all done while furthering anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and weakening sanctions regimes. The UN does this largely from its perch on American territory and with the help of billions of dollars of American taxpayer money. Of course the U.S. collects intelligence there.

But to those who are instinctively suspicious of the American government, even basic practices of modern statecraft take on a nefarious frame. There’s an interesting nugget along these lines in the Times Magazine profile of Poitras, when the author relayed a question to Snowden about Poitras:

In response to a question about when he realized he could trust Poitras, he wrote: “We came to a point in the verification and vetting process where I discovered Laura was more suspicious of me than I was of her, and I’m famously paranoid.”

Snowden was surprised to encounter someone more paranoid than he is. Together, these birds of a feather joined Greenwald.

There is another point worth making here. The American public has been fairly sensible throughout this NSA saga, uncomfortable with the sense that the NSA’s broad power has been abused (NSA employees spying on love interests would–and should–make most readers squirm) but unwilling to jettison the program. A poll late last month found, for example, that 70 percent thought the NSA data was being used for purposes other than combating terrorism, yet 50 percent still approved of the surveillance program.

Revelations about spying on the UN is unlikely to change that. Americans seem to be broadly comfortable with spy agencies conducting foreign surveillance. And they don’t tend to think too highly of the UN’s problem-solving capability. The idea that the U.S. spied on the UN’s nuclear watchdog, for example, will probably be encouraging to most Americans as the U.S. works to stop Iran and others (like Syria) from obtaining nuclear weapons. If Poitras, Snowden, and Greenwald want to turn public opinion against the American government, defending the UN’s sullied honor is probably not the best way to do so.

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Miranda’s Rights

To a casual follower of the news, it would be easy to believe that Great Britain is turning into a police state and that among its victims is the Brazilian partner of Glenn Greenwald, the far-left American expatriate blogger who has attained fame as the amanuensis of NSA turncoat Edward Snowden. David Michael Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, was detained at Heathrow Airport for nine hours of questioning and his electronic equipment was confiscated before he was released without charge.

Greenwald claims this was a move designed to intimidate him and he vows it won’t work. Indeed Greenwald has reacted to Miranda’s temporary detention in the way that a mafia capo might react to a rival family making a move on one of his lieutenants—he has vowed revenge. “I’m going to publish many more things about England,” Greenwald threatens, adding, menacingly, “I think they’ll regret what they’ve done.”

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To a casual follower of the news, it would be easy to believe that Great Britain is turning into a police state and that among its victims is the Brazilian partner of Glenn Greenwald, the far-left American expatriate blogger who has attained fame as the amanuensis of NSA turncoat Edward Snowden. David Michael Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, was detained at Heathrow Airport for nine hours of questioning and his electronic equipment was confiscated before he was released without charge.

Greenwald claims this was a move designed to intimidate him and he vows it won’t work. Indeed Greenwald has reacted to Miranda’s temporary detention in the way that a mafia capo might react to a rival family making a move on one of his lieutenants—he has vowed revenge. “I’m going to publish many more things about England,” Greenwald threatens, adding, menacingly, “I think they’ll regret what they’ve done.”

What seems to be forgotten here is that Greenwald has already published a great deal not only about the secret activities of the NSA but also those of its British partner, GCHQ. (Among the early headlines generated by Snowden’s theft was the news that GCHQ had spied on the Russian delegation during an international conference in London.) Britain takes that kind of thing seriously—its laws, notably the Official Secrets Act, are tilted much more heavily toward preserving government secrecy than are the laws in the United States. Which is why it makes perfect sense that British officials would detain Miranda when he happened to alight in their jurisdiction.

He was not on a pleasure trip. He was traveling from Berlin, where he had met with Laura Poitras, a filmmaker and anti-American propagandist who, like Greenwald, has been one of the key enablers allowing Snowden to reveal the existence of classified NSA activities whose outing can only help America’s (and Britain’s) enemies. Miranda was, in fact, serving as a courier between Poitras and Greenwald: “Mr. Miranda told reporters in Rio on Monday,” according to the New York Times, “that all of the documents encrypted on the thumb drives came from the trove of materials provided by Mr. Snowden.”

What a scandal: the British authorities are trying to seize back secrets that had been unlawfully pilfered by Snowden and then published with the help of Greenwald and Poitras. It is doubtful whether the British move actually did much to stop Snowden’s slow-motion campaign to cripple the electronic-intelligence gathering capabilities of the U.S. and its allies; Snowden and his confederates appear to be canny enough to stash multiple copies of his stolen documents in various places. But it’s hard to blame the Brits for trying.

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Mistakes, Not Abuse at NSA

“The National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008, according to an internal audit and other top-secret documents.”

That’s the lead of the latest Washington Post story based on documents stolen by NSA-defector Edward Snowden. Sounds pretty alarming, doesn’t it? The Post article makes it sound as if the NSA is precisely what Snowden claims it is–an out-of-control outfit routinely breaking the law to spy on innocent Americans.

The details tell a somewhat different story. As the New York Times notes:

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“The National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008, according to an internal audit and other top-secret documents.”

That’s the lead of the latest Washington Post story based on documents stolen by NSA-defector Edward Snowden. Sounds pretty alarming, doesn’t it? The Post article makes it sound as if the NSA is precisely what Snowden claims it is–an out-of-control outfit routinely breaking the law to spy on innocent Americans.

The details tell a somewhat different story. As the New York Times notes:

The largest number of episodes — 1,904 — appeared to be “roamers,” in which a foreigner whose cellphone was being wiretapped without a warrant came to the United States, where individual warrants are required. A spike in such problems in a single quarter, the report said, could be because of Chinese citizens visiting friends and family for the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday.

“Roamer incidents are largely unpreventable, even with good target awareness and traffic review, since target travel activities are often unannounced and not easily predicted,” the report says.

In another case, “the system collected metadata logs about a ‘large number’ of calls dialed from Washington – something it was already doing through a different program – because of a programming error mixing up the district’s area code, 202, with the international dialing code of Egypt, 20.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like Big Brother, does it? It doesn’t even sound like the work of the FBI in the old days when it was wiretapping Martin Luther King Jr. and other political figures. This sounds as if the NSA operatives committed innocent errors due to inadvertent mistakes which were then caught and corrected in an internal audit. In other words, the system worked exactly as it was supposed to, and there is zero evidence presented here that NSA wiretappers gathered any information for personal or non-professional reasons.

This was not NSA employees spying on their ex-wives or trying to get an unfair advantage in the stock market. For the most part it is not even the NSA spying on Americans. Indeed the regulations regarding “roamers” highlight an absurdity that terrorists can exploit–it is much easier for the NSA to tap suspects abroad than when they are on American soil, where they can presumably do the most damage.

So before we get too deep into outrage over NSA “rule-breaking,” let’s take a deep breath. A small number of inadvertent errors–and the number is small given the number of overall NSA operations going on–is hardly cause to discontinue valuable intelligence-gathering programs that are helping to keep us safe from a resurgent al-Qaeda.

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NSA and Snowden Battle for Legitimacy

Tom Friedman gets at the core of the problem with President Obama’s proposal to appoint a “privacy advocate” to, in effect, argue against federal surveillance requests in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court when he writes: “Considering the breadth of reforms that President Obama is now proposing to prevent privacy abuses in intelligence gathering, in the wake of Snowden’s disclosures, Snowden deserves a chance to make a second impression — that he truly is a whistle-blower, not a traitor.”

It does indeed seem that Obama is granting legitimacy to Snowden by proposing reforms which implicitly concede that the NSA turncoat has a point–that there is something wrong with the surveillance programs currently carried out by the NSA under its existing authorities even though there is no evidence of abuses carried out by the agency. In this way Obama may be undermining the legitimacy of the programs in question instead of buttressing them.

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Tom Friedman gets at the core of the problem with President Obama’s proposal to appoint a “privacy advocate” to, in effect, argue against federal surveillance requests in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court when he writes: “Considering the breadth of reforms that President Obama is now proposing to prevent privacy abuses in intelligence gathering, in the wake of Snowden’s disclosures, Snowden deserves a chance to make a second impression — that he truly is a whistle-blower, not a traitor.”

It does indeed seem that Obama is granting legitimacy to Snowden by proposing reforms which implicitly concede that the NSA turncoat has a point–that there is something wrong with the surveillance programs currently carried out by the NSA under its existing authorities even though there is no evidence of abuses carried out by the agency. In this way Obama may be undermining the legitimacy of the programs in question instead of buttressing them.

On the other hand, one can make the case that Obama is only proposing cosmetic reforms that won’t change the underlying programs while shielding them from growing congressional criticism, which threatens to terminate them altogether.

I am willing to grant Obama the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is trying to achieve the latter, but I fear his proposals for reform, however well-intentioned, will result in the former–the delegitimization of programs that in the past have enjoyed solid bipartisan support and that remain necessary to safeguard us against an al-Qaeda threat that, administration claims to the contrary, is not going away.

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Snowden, Amash, and the Isolationist Peril

Rep. Justin Amash has risen from being a generally obscure conservative Republican member of Congress to being a leading voice of a rising tide of libertarianism that looks at times as if it is about to take control of his party. His ability to rally nearly half of the House of Representatives to vote for an amendment he proposed to end a controversial National Security Agency metadata mining program has catapulted him to the front rank of talking heads on the cable news networks. So it was no surprise to find Amash being interviewed yesterday on Fox News Sunday to comment about national security issues. But the juxtaposition of his defense of Edward Snowden, the man who illegally leaked information about the NSA, with the news that the United States had closed embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East as a result of concern over threats of a new wave of al-Qaeda terrorism, which were obviously obtained by U.S. intelligence activity, should have put Amash’s grandstanding about security policy in a less defensible context.

While Amash and his allies in the Senate, such as Rand Paul, like to talk about the threat to our rights from an untrammeled security state, the threat of terrorism should serve as a reminder of what happens when the September 10th caucus these libertarians are leading succeeds. Though many Americans have been acting as if President Obama’s boasts about having destroyed al-Qaeda were true, both the Benghazi attack and the threats that have sent U.S. diplomats scurrying for cover this week put Amash’s labeling of Snowden as a “whistleblower” rather than a traitor in a very different context than he intended.

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Rep. Justin Amash has risen from being a generally obscure conservative Republican member of Congress to being a leading voice of a rising tide of libertarianism that looks at times as if it is about to take control of his party. His ability to rally nearly half of the House of Representatives to vote for an amendment he proposed to end a controversial National Security Agency metadata mining program has catapulted him to the front rank of talking heads on the cable news networks. So it was no surprise to find Amash being interviewed yesterday on Fox News Sunday to comment about national security issues. But the juxtaposition of his defense of Edward Snowden, the man who illegally leaked information about the NSA, with the news that the United States had closed embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East as a result of concern over threats of a new wave of al-Qaeda terrorism, which were obviously obtained by U.S. intelligence activity, should have put Amash’s grandstanding about security policy in a less defensible context.

While Amash and his allies in the Senate, such as Rand Paul, like to talk about the threat to our rights from an untrammeled security state, the threat of terrorism should serve as a reminder of what happens when the September 10th caucus these libertarians are leading succeeds. Though many Americans have been acting as if President Obama’s boasts about having destroyed al-Qaeda were true, both the Benghazi attack and the threats that have sent U.S. diplomats scurrying for cover this week put Amash’s labeling of Snowden as a “whistleblower” rather than a traitor in a very different context than he intended.

The reaction to the NSA programs has been largely the function of complacency about terrorism borne of the successful American intelligence operations in the years since the 9/11 attacks. But the notion that we can treat the war against Islamist terrorism as having already been won is a myth that both Obama and his libertarian opponents have helped foster. Paul and Amash represent a worldview that sees American counter-terror efforts, whether in terms of drone attacks on al-Qaeda targets or intelligence gathering, as happening in a vacuum that ignores the reality of ongoing efforts to attack the West. That is why they have sought to whip up hysteria about hypothetical drone attacks on Americans sitting in Starbucks, as Paul has done, and to treat a legal program conducted under judicial review and congressional oversight as the arrival of Big Brother totalitarianism.

Conservatives are rightly suspicious of President Obama and his belief in untrammeled government power. But to the extent that he has continued many, if not most, of his predecessor’s efforts to defend Americans against terrorism, he deserves the support of conservatives who backed Bush for the same measures.

To refer to Snowden, who dealt a body blow to counter-terrorism intelligence, as a “whistle-blower” is to treat the war on Islamist terror as either fake or no longer being fought. In doing so, Amash has demonstrated how some on the right have, as Paul’s father often did, made common cause with left-wingers who think the world would be better off if America were booted off the global stage and retreated behind our borders. As I’ve noted previously, the left thinks America is always up to no good while their right-wing counterparts tend to act as if the country will only be safe if it seals itself off from the rest of the world. But as a practical matter, the two positions amount to the same thing.

This ought to have embarrassed Amash, but whether it did or not, it illustrates not only the problems that such an attitude creates for U.S. policy but the political implications of a Republican drift toward isolationism. If the GOP abandons its traditional posture as advocates for a strong defense and America maintaining its stature as a global power, then it renders itself vulnerable to the tides of war that may give the lie to both Obama’s boasts and Amash’s ostrich-like posture. This past weekend should give Republicans a glimpse of just how disastrous that would be.

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The Wages of Irresolution

Barack Obama came into the presidency promising to improve America’s standing in the world. He seems to have forgotten it is just as important for a superpower to be feared–or better yet respected–as to be loved. In point of fact, as polls attest, Obama has not made the United States loved in the Muslim world and other key areas– just 14 percent of Egyptians have a favorable view of the U.S. Nor has Obama made the U.S. respected.

That much is obvious from Russia’s decision to grant accused traitor Edward Snowden political asylum. Vladimir Putin fully heard out the administration’s pleas that Snowden be sent back home to face trial for his crimes–and he consciously decided to aggravate the United States instead of accommodating it. It’s not as if the fate of Edward Snowden was so important to Putin. The young NSA turncoat matters only for his symbolic value: By granting asylum to Snowden, Putin is humiliating Obama.

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Barack Obama came into the presidency promising to improve America’s standing in the world. He seems to have forgotten it is just as important for a superpower to be feared–or better yet respected–as to be loved. In point of fact, as polls attest, Obama has not made the United States loved in the Muslim world and other key areas– just 14 percent of Egyptians have a favorable view of the U.S. Nor has Obama made the U.S. respected.

That much is obvious from Russia’s decision to grant accused traitor Edward Snowden political asylum. Vladimir Putin fully heard out the administration’s pleas that Snowden be sent back home to face trial for his crimes–and he consciously decided to aggravate the United States instead of accommodating it. It’s not as if the fate of Edward Snowden was so important to Putin. The young NSA turncoat matters only for his symbolic value: By granting asylum to Snowden, Putin is humiliating Obama.

The fact that Putin would send such a signal over such an inconsequential issue is a sign of how little he cares about potential American retaliation. And why should he? Obama has done precious little during his time in office to convey the impression that he will back up his threats–except of course against Osama bin Laden. But precious few other issues can be resolved neatly and expeditiously with a Special Operations raid or a drone strike.

Case in point: His agonized hesitancy over Syria where he first drew a “red line,” then hesitated to acknowledge that it had been crossed, and even when he did concede that, yes, Assad had used chemical weapons, his reaction was as minimal as possible–agreeing to send some infantry weapons to the Syrian opposition which have not yet been delivered. Obama understandably doesn’t want to get stuck in the Syrian morass. But he should understand that when the president of the United States makes threats and then fails to make good on them, that has consequences for America’s dealings with the rest of the world. It sends a message of irresolution that cunning predators like Putin can smell from half a world away. The result: Snowden will have an opportunity to upgrade his tastes from pizza and fried chicken to caviar and blinis.

At the very least Obama must register his displeasure by cancelling a planned summit with Putin on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg in September. That seems likely to happen, but indications are that Obama is still planning to attend the G20. He shouldn’t, notwithstanding the temporary flap it will cause; otherwise he will only convey to Putin and his ilk the impression that he is a pushover in the harsh and unforgiving realm of international politics.

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U.S.-Russia Relations After Snowden

You can tell the Russian government is enjoying needling the Obama administration over Edward Snowden. Yes, the Putin regime likes the attention it gets, the chance to accuse the West of hypocrisy and to demonstrate Putin’s deft grasp of “whataboutism,” and of course the access to Snowden’s intel. But they seem to take just as much pleasure in publicly taunting an Obama administration it has outfoxed for years now.

Case in point: today Russia finally granted Snowden asylum. It’s a one-year pass for now, but it gets him out of Sheremetyevo airport. This, naturally, has drawn condemnation from the U.S. As long as Snowden’s status was still in limbo, there was at least the possibility that he could be returned to the U.S. to face prosecution for his actions. Snowden is probably more trouble to Putin than he’s worth, and Putin had started to treat Snowden like the guest who won’t leave. So it wasn’t beyond the imagination that Snowden would be sent packing or get caught trying to escape to Latin America.

Not only have the Russians officially ended that charade, but they are telling the Obama administration to just get over it already. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

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You can tell the Russian government is enjoying needling the Obama administration over Edward Snowden. Yes, the Putin regime likes the attention it gets, the chance to accuse the West of hypocrisy and to demonstrate Putin’s deft grasp of “whataboutism,” and of course the access to Snowden’s intel. But they seem to take just as much pleasure in publicly taunting an Obama administration it has outfoxed for years now.

Case in point: today Russia finally granted Snowden asylum. It’s a one-year pass for now, but it gets him out of Sheremetyevo airport. This, naturally, has drawn condemnation from the U.S. As long as Snowden’s status was still in limbo, there was at least the possibility that he could be returned to the U.S. to face prosecution for his actions. Snowden is probably more trouble to Putin than he’s worth, and Putin had started to treat Snowden like the guest who won’t leave. So it wasn’t beyond the imagination that Snowden would be sent packing or get caught trying to escape to Latin America.

Not only have the Russians officially ended that charade, but they are telling the Obama administration to just get over it already. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov immediately played down the impact of the decision to harbor Mr. Snowden. “This situation is too insignificant to affect political relations,” he said. He added that the Russian government has received no indication from U.S. officials that the September summit between Messrs. Obama and Putin might be cancelled. He reiterated Mr. Putin’s hope that the incident doesn’t affect relations.

No article on U.S.-Russia relations would be truly complete without a split-the-difference quote from Fyodor Lukyanov, and the Journal provides this one:

Mr. Lukyanov said the Kremlin will be ambivalent about Mr. Snowden as long as he remains in Russia. “Philby and others were all Russian agents, and in those cases, there as [sic] a moral obligation to protect them and do everything for them that they needed,” he said. “But in this case, Snowden didn’t do what he did for Russia. He came here as a surprise, and in the end, Russia will be very much surprised at what damage this did to Russian-American relations.”

This is a surreal aspect to the whole affair. The Obama administration wanted Snowden back when he was leaving Hong Kong. Not only has the White House asked Russia for Snowden’s extradition, but allies in Europe actually grounded the Bolivian president’s plane on the suspicion Snowden was aboard. That’s not exactly subtle. And although it’s a bad idea (as I argued here), Lindsey Graham even spent two days arguing that the U.S. should consider boycotting the 2014 Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi. That is highly unlikely, and surely the Russians know that, but it should have established for the record in crystal clear fashion that yes, the U.S. government is unhappy about this state of affairs.

Putin’s administration is, consciously or not, projecting an insufferable sense of entitlement here. Not only do they want a high-profile American defector all their own, but they’d like to instruct the president of the United States how to feel about it. The advantage of this is that it can easily provoke an overreaction–such as boycotting the Olympics–that would be yet another public-relations fiasco for the Obama administration.

The Obama administration never should have scrapped the Europe-based missile defense plans as a goodwill gesture to Putin, but they would look silly reinstating a missile system over Snowden; the optics of Russia handing Snowden a visa and the U.S. constructing missile silos in response would be a PR gift to Putin. Russia has already been welcomed into the World Trade Organization, though that will benefit the American economy as well, so any WTO-related retaliation would be self-defeating.

So what should President Obama do to show his disapproval? Press Secretary Jay Carney wagged his finger at Russia today, adding that Obama may just decide to cancel on an upcoming Moscow bilateral summit:

Russia’s decision also threatens to derail a planned September summit in Moscow between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which U.S. officials had viewed as a potential breakthrough moment in a monthslong drive to find common ground with Russia on important foreign-policy aims, such as ending the war in Syria. “We are evaluating the utility of a summit in light of this,” Mr. Carney said, adding that no decision had been made.

The “utility” of such a summit was always in doubt, but the president should begin by following through on this threat. A meeting with Putin over Syria is unlikely to produce much of a breakthrough, and the visual of Obama traveling to Moscow to beseech Putin is not one the president should consider offering at this point. After all, the last time Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with Putin, the Russian president sought to humiliate the chief American diplomat.

Beyond that, what the president needs is a change of outlook more than anything. He should be wary of being seen to fire off too many reactions to this one incident at the same time. He doesn’t want to appear erratic and, more importantly, he does not want to give Putin the satisfaction of losing his cool. But the days of the “reset” naïveté are hopefully behind Obama. Putin has spent the last month taunting and insulting the president. Obama should remember that each and every time Putin wants something from here on out. The Olympics will survive this fiasco intact, but Putin’s smug sense of entitlement should not.

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Vital NSA Program Survives House Vote

Al-Qaeda chieftain Ayman al-Zawahiri can put away his celebratory fruit juice, but he should keep it on ice. The House only narrowly defeated, on a bipartisan 205 to 217 vote, a resolution that would have stopped the NSA from collecting “metadata” on phone calls. Opponents of the NSA’s data collection efforts are vowing that the authority for the program will be allowed to expire in 2015.

If this is indeed what happens, it will make the job of al-Qaeda and other extremist groups seeking to attack the U.S. appreciably easier. This would amount to unilateral disarmament in the war on terror by taking away one of the most valuable tools that the U.S. government has to detect terrorist plots. Privacy concerns have been raised, understandably, about the NSA maintaining a log of all phone calls even if it doesn’t have access to the contents of those conversations without a court order. But there is not a single documented instance of that authority being misused and a number of public examples of how those efforts have thwarted terrorist plots.

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Al-Qaeda chieftain Ayman al-Zawahiri can put away his celebratory fruit juice, but he should keep it on ice. The House only narrowly defeated, on a bipartisan 205 to 217 vote, a resolution that would have stopped the NSA from collecting “metadata” on phone calls. Opponents of the NSA’s data collection efforts are vowing that the authority for the program will be allowed to expire in 2015.

If this is indeed what happens, it will make the job of al-Qaeda and other extremist groups seeking to attack the U.S. appreciably easier. This would amount to unilateral disarmament in the war on terror by taking away one of the most valuable tools that the U.S. government has to detect terrorist plots. Privacy concerns have been raised, understandably, about the NSA maintaining a log of all phone calls even if it doesn’t have access to the contents of those conversations without a court order. But there is not a single documented instance of that authority being misused and a number of public examples of how those efforts have thwarted terrorist plots.

That is why a bipartisan group of former intelligence and security officials–including former Attorneys General Michael Mukasey and Alberto Gonzalez, former CIA directors Michael Hayden and Porter Goss, and former National Security Adviser James Jones–have issued a public letter calling on Congress to support not only the phone call metadata-collection program but the other program exposed by Edward Snowden, the one that keeps tabs on foreigners’ Internet activity.

“We are convinced that both programs are vitally important to our national security,” they write, adding: “We firmly believe that there is no need to make dramatic changes in existing law or to require fundamental alterations in these programs or in the FISA process. We all know that new international dangers arise continuously, and the evolving threat environment confronting the United States requires the firm maintenance of these capabilities into the future.”

Many members of the House, it seems, disagree–but then they don’t have the actual responsibility of stopping terrorist attacks. That is someone else’s job. House members are free to grandstand about civil liberties, confident that if an attack does occur, they will not be blamed for it.

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Obama Is Justified in Prosecuting Leakers

There is bipartisan fury today over the Obama administration’s leak investigations, which have included examining the emails of a Fox News reporter and winning an appeals court ruling that a New York Times reporter can be compelled to testify about leaks he received from a CIA source. The mainstream media is in high dudgeon, as expected, and it is joined, unexpectedly, by many on the right who think that this Democratic president is pursuing a vendetta against conservative critics–an impression certainly fostered by the IRS scandal even though there is no evidence of a White House link to the decision to deny Tea Party groups tax-exempt status.

I have no brief for governmental excesses such as those revealed by the IRS, but let’s not lose sight of the larger picture. As the New York Times itself notes, during President Bush’s second term in office, 153 cases of government officials leaking national security secrets were referred to the Justice Department. Not one of those cases resulted in a single indictment. Bush’s reluctance to prosecute leakers is understandable given the firestorm of controversy that has accompanied Obama’s prosecutions–the criticism would have been a hundred times fiercer against prosecutions ordered by a conservative Republican rather than a liberal former law professor. Nevertheless retired Admiral Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence, is right that this failure to prosecute was “pretty shocking,” and he and Attorney General Eric Holder did what they needed to do by putting more of a push behind leak investigations.

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There is bipartisan fury today over the Obama administration’s leak investigations, which have included examining the emails of a Fox News reporter and winning an appeals court ruling that a New York Times reporter can be compelled to testify about leaks he received from a CIA source. The mainstream media is in high dudgeon, as expected, and it is joined, unexpectedly, by many on the right who think that this Democratic president is pursuing a vendetta against conservative critics–an impression certainly fostered by the IRS scandal even though there is no evidence of a White House link to the decision to deny Tea Party groups tax-exempt status.

I have no brief for governmental excesses such as those revealed by the IRS, but let’s not lose sight of the larger picture. As the New York Times itself notes, during President Bush’s second term in office, 153 cases of government officials leaking national security secrets were referred to the Justice Department. Not one of those cases resulted in a single indictment. Bush’s reluctance to prosecute leakers is understandable given the firestorm of controversy that has accompanied Obama’s prosecutions–the criticism would have been a hundred times fiercer against prosecutions ordered by a conservative Republican rather than a liberal former law professor. Nevertheless retired Admiral Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence, is right that this failure to prosecute was “pretty shocking,” and he and Attorney General Eric Holder did what they needed to do by putting more of a push behind leak investigations.

The need for such action is clear given how many secrets have been revealed in recent years, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning being only two of the higher-profile offenders that have done great damage to national security and given great aid and comfort to our enemies. It is imperative to send a signal that leaking secret documents–and even more highly classified information–will not be tolerated, and the best way to do this is to make leakers pay. And not just lowly leakers such as Private Manning.

Recent word is that retired Marine General James Cartwright may be indicted for leaking information about the Stuxnet virus used to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program–one of the most sensitive secrets in the entire government. I have no idea whether or not he is guilty, but if there is good evidence of his culpability, he deserves to have the book thrown at him to show that rank is no protection for those who betray their obligation to keep secret information genuinely secret.

However suspicious Republicans may be of Obama’s motives, the anti-leaker prosecutions seem well justified and deserving of bipartisan support.

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Don’t Boycott Olympics Over Snowden

The continuing scandal of Edward Snowden’s flight to China and then Russia (and possibly elsewhere more permanently) has been a diplomatic setback for the Obama administration. But it has not been wholly without its minor diplomatic victories. A phone call from Vice President Biden to Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa apparently convinced the latter not to accept Snowden. And a request from President Obama apparently convinced our European allies to ground the Bolivian president’s plane out of suspicion Snowden was on board.

Snowden hasn’t been extradited, but his options are disappearing and his fate is now in the hands of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. And the president did read one aspect of the issue correctly: countries have reveled in rejecting the American president publicly, and so Obama has declined to play too high-profile a role lest he give Vladimir Putin and the others an additional public-relations victory. There was no reason to add (more) insult to injury–but that’s exactly what GOP Senator Lindsey Graham would have the administration do. Graham said the U.S. should consider boycotting the 2014 Olympics to be held in the Russian city of Sochi if Snowden isn’t extradited to the U.S. His comments have now drawn condemnation from both sides of the isle, as well as the U.S. Olympic Committee:

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The continuing scandal of Edward Snowden’s flight to China and then Russia (and possibly elsewhere more permanently) has been a diplomatic setback for the Obama administration. But it has not been wholly without its minor diplomatic victories. A phone call from Vice President Biden to Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa apparently convinced the latter not to accept Snowden. And a request from President Obama apparently convinced our European allies to ground the Bolivian president’s plane out of suspicion Snowden was on board.

Snowden hasn’t been extradited, but his options are disappearing and his fate is now in the hands of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. And the president did read one aspect of the issue correctly: countries have reveled in rejecting the American president publicly, and so Obama has declined to play too high-profile a role lest he give Vladimir Putin and the others an additional public-relations victory. There was no reason to add (more) insult to injury–but that’s exactly what GOP Senator Lindsey Graham would have the administration do. Graham said the U.S. should consider boycotting the 2014 Olympics to be held in the Russian city of Sochi if Snowden isn’t extradited to the U.S. His comments have now drawn condemnation from both sides of the isle, as well as the U.S. Olympic Committee:

“If there are any lessons to be learned from the American boycott of 1980, it is that Olympic boycotts do not work,” U.S. Olympic Committee spokesperson Patrick Sandusky said in a statement. “Our boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games did not contribute to a successful resolution of the underlying conflict. It did, however, deprive hundreds of American athletes, all whom had completely dedicated themselves to representing our nation at the Olympic Games, of the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Graham said the United States should send Russia “the most unequivocal signal I could send them” after Snowden on Tuesday formally requested asylum after spending almost a month in the transit zone of the Moscow airport. Snowden has been charged with espionage for leaking details about two NSA programs that collected information about U.S. telephone calls and international Internet usage.

Alexey Pushkov, a Russian lawmaker, dismissed Graham’s remarks as an effort to go back to Cold War times of “mutual boycotts when our two countries looked at each other through, figuratively speaking, nuclear sight.” And President Vladimir Putin said U.S.-Russian ties were “far more important” than the Snowden dispute.

Olympic athletes train and prepare their entire lives for the chance to participate in an event that comes along once every four years. A boycott means there would be eight years between American participation in a winter Olympics. The average age of a winter Olympian is usually around 27 years old, making that eight-year gap a career-ender for many. That doesn’t mean a boycott is never an acceptable act, but the offense has to fit the outrage.

Does it in this case? Not remotely. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked about it at a press briefing and said it’s not even on the administration’s radar. The administration likely knows that the boycott threat would probably have the opposite of the intended effect. Most of the countries’ teams would shed no tears over the thought of not having to compete with American athletes, and they would probably view Putin as something of a hero for getting the Americans to back out of the competition, leveling the playing field in certain sports.

It would also make the U.S. look petty: we didn’t boycott the Olympics in China in 2008, after all, but now that we feel personally insulted we’re going to stay home? We should be careful about the precedent, too. An un-extradited fugitive is a low bar for countries to clear if they’re looking for an excuse to make a fuss.

So what’s happening here? It’s most likely an overreaction born of frustration. But unlike during the Cold War, the mistake to be avoided is taking such Russian provocations too seriously. Putin is presiding over a country in various stages of decline, and he would love nothing more than to be treated as though he is more of a threat than he is. That’s not to say he’s harmless–Russian assistance to Iran’s nuclear program and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, as well as invading U.S. allies are but a few of the ways Putin can and does cause real harm.

But it’s those actions that call for pushback, not the administration’s failed “reset,” a policy that quickly became a punch line. If there is information the FSB can get from Snowden, they’ve probably got it already. He’s been living in the transit zone of the airport for about a month, after all. Obama’s policies toward Russia have been disastrous and weak, but conservatives need to offer a more serious alternative than boycotting the Olympics over Snowden. It’s a good sign that Graham seems to be alone in his proposal.

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What’s Up with Russia?

Within the magical world of the White House and State Department, everything might be hunky-dory with regard to Russia and the Obama administration’s signature “reset” policy is an unquestioned success. Several months ago, I was on a National Public Radio show with another think tank analyst whom often serves as an Obama administration proxy. He sang the praises of the “reset,” arguing that Obama’s initiative resulted in Russian logistical cooperation, for example, allowing the United States to use the Manas airbase in Kyrgyztsan. To attribute Russian acquiescence to NATO supply through its territory to the “reset,” however, ignores Russian realism: Moscow fears Taliban resurgence and spread into Central Asia and, after initial suspicion, has been perfectly happy for American forces to hold the Islamists at bay.

In recent days, Russia has blocked UN condemnation of new Iranian missile tests, gloated over Edward Snowden, convicted a human rights lawyer whom it likely murdered of tax evasion in true Soviet fashion and, of course, keeps arming and supporting Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria. The unprecedented harassment U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul must endure is an intentional insult to the United States to which President Obama and Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry have paid some lip service but remain largely indifferent. Nor is the White House willing to allow Russian harassment of U.S.- and European-staffed or funded NGOs to undercut its lofty notion of positive relations.

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Within the magical world of the White House and State Department, everything might be hunky-dory with regard to Russia and the Obama administration’s signature “reset” policy is an unquestioned success. Several months ago, I was on a National Public Radio show with another think tank analyst whom often serves as an Obama administration proxy. He sang the praises of the “reset,” arguing that Obama’s initiative resulted in Russian logistical cooperation, for example, allowing the United States to use the Manas airbase in Kyrgyztsan. To attribute Russian acquiescence to NATO supply through its territory to the “reset,” however, ignores Russian realism: Moscow fears Taliban resurgence and spread into Central Asia and, after initial suspicion, has been perfectly happy for American forces to hold the Islamists at bay.

In recent days, Russia has blocked UN condemnation of new Iranian missile tests, gloated over Edward Snowden, convicted a human rights lawyer whom it likely murdered of tax evasion in true Soviet fashion and, of course, keeps arming and supporting Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria. The unprecedented harassment U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul must endure is an intentional insult to the United States to which President Obama and Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry have paid some lip service but remain largely indifferent. Nor is the White House willing to allow Russian harassment of U.S.- and European-staffed or funded NGOs to undercut its lofty notion of positive relations.

The list is long—to keep up with all the news from Russia, I usually follow Anna Borshchevskaya (@annaborsh) who, aside from her role as communications director for the American Islamic Congress, tweets out the latest from both English and Russian language sources about what the Russians are up to, and what they are saying about the United States. (Full disclosure, I have to follow Borshchevskaya in most things since we’re married). Still, what actually makes it to the Western press is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, what’s beneath the surface is often just as bad if not worse.

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