Commentary Magazine


Topic: NSA

How Many Snowden Documents Are Fake?

The 2014 Pulitzers gave supporters of NSA leaker and defector Edward Snowden an opportunity to spike the football. And they would do so. “The Pulitzer Prizes Just Demolished The Idea That Edward Snowden Is A Traitor,” crowed the Huffington Post. The Pulitzer is indeed a prestigious award, though I would doubt that the Huffington Post would claim that the 1932 Pulitzer Prizes demolished the idea that Stalin was a murderous tyrant. Even after the award, Snowden’s actions have given his critics more reason to doubt him. And now we have another.

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The 2014 Pulitzers gave supporters of NSA leaker and defector Edward Snowden an opportunity to spike the football. And they would do so. “The Pulitzer Prizes Just Demolished The Idea That Edward Snowden Is A Traitor,” crowed the Huffington Post. The Pulitzer is indeed a prestigious award, though I would doubt that the Huffington Post would claim that the 1932 Pulitzer Prizes demolished the idea that Stalin was a murderous tyrant. Even after the award, Snowden’s actions have given his critics more reason to doubt him. And now we have another.

Last year, the German publication Spiegel, which had been publishing some of the leaked Snowden documents, alleged that the NSA was bugging Angela Merkel’s phone. I say “alleged” rather than “revealed” because the credibility of that story just took a major hit. The story caused ripples of consternation throughout Europe and threatened to rupture U.S.-German relations, and President Obama apologized, though he denied knowing anything about it. The denial seemed implausible at the time; it turns out the president was probably telling the truth.

The German government began an investigation into the allegations this year, and they have come to some preliminary findings, as Reuters reported:

Germany’s top public prosecutor said an investigation into suspected tapping of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone by U.S. spies had so far failed to find any concrete evidence.

Revelations by former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden that Washington carried out large-scale electronic espionage in Germany provoked widespread outrage — particularly the allegation that the NSA had bugged Merkel’s phone.

Harald Range launched an official investigation in June, believing there was enough preliminary evidence to show unknown U.S. intelligence officers had tapped the phone, although there was not enough clarity on the issue to bring charges.

On Wednesday he said however, “the document presented in public as proof of an actual tapping of the mobile phone is not an authentic surveillance order by the NSA. It does not come from the NSA database.

“Not an authentic surveillance order by the NSA” is an extremely important detail. If that’s true, here’s what appears to have happened: an American defector to Russia (Snowden had been granted asylum in Russia just a couple months before the Spiegel story was published) passed along a fake document designed to throw a wrench in U.S.-German (and U.S.-European) relations.

But we don’t know that either. In fact, this episode raises more questions than it answers. We already know Snowden isn’t trustworthy, and we know his story has changed. We know he has embraced a role as a Putin propagandist. We know that, according to Snowden himself, he doesn’t know everything that’s included in the trove of documents he stole and released on his way to Russia.

So there’s much we already know about Snowden. But if this document is fake, there’s a lot we don’t know about the leaks. First and foremost, we don’t know how much is fake. This is important, because careers were made and Pulitzers were won on the backs of this document trove. NSA reform efforts took shape based on the supposed revelations (many of them surely actual revelations; no one should think all the documents are false).

And it’s also why Snowden’s credibility is so crucial to sorting all this out. The debate that raged in the aftermath of the first disclosures and the news that Snowden had taken much more, which would amount to a steady drip-drip of American secrets, took for granted that the United States government did what Snowden said it did.

In this, Snowden was aided by two things: first and foremost, the journalists who essentially worked as his secretaries. And second, the overwhelming amount of documents he took.

If it’s true that the NSA order regarding Merkel was a fake, why didn’t the NSA show it to be at the time? One possibility is that the size of the bureaucracy of America’s intelligence apparatus makes such a denial a bit like proving a negative: how could the entire organization be sure it never came from NSA? The president’s initial denial suggests the top leaders at the organization truly didn’t recognize the order. But if you redact names and other essential information from such a document, it’s not so easy to trace it.

And who has the resources to conduct such an investigation? Remember, the documents were not handed back to the government. Clearly some of the information released by Snowden’s secretaries was accurate, the rest believable. Snowden seems to have been relying on this.

And he also seems to have been relying on the media. The public doesn’t have access to Snowden’s haul. They trust reporters to sift through them and present them accurately. This is not exactly the golden age of ethics in media, but the public doesn’t really have a choice. They now know that their faith in the media was misplaced. The press isn’t qualified to interpret massive amounts of national-security documents. That doesn’t mean there’s another option; there isn’t. The press still does a great service when correctly reporting on government malfeasance. It would just be nice if the press got the story right far more often than it does.

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Snowden Can’t Be Trusted–Just Ask Him

Edward Snowden’s practice of granting the occasional interview to worshipful admirers of his has continued with the new Wired magazine profile. The interviews tend be very long, generally insufferable press releases. When Snowden’s feeling lonely, it seems, he talks to an apostle so he can see his messianic significance proclaimed by press agents masquerading as inquisitive journalists. And yet, the Wired interview, like the others, can be surprisingly revealing–not because the interviewers dig for information but because Snowden’s own story is so self-contradicting.

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Edward Snowden’s practice of granting the occasional interview to worshipful admirers of his has continued with the new Wired magazine profile. The interviews tend be very long, generally insufferable press releases. When Snowden’s feeling lonely, it seems, he talks to an apostle so he can see his messianic significance proclaimed by press agents masquerading as inquisitive journalists. And yet, the Wired interview, like the others, can be surprisingly revealing–not because the interviewers dig for information but because Snowden’s own story is so self-contradicting.

In the past, this has generally meant Snowden claiming to be interested in protecting Americans’ constitutional rights and then demonstrating how some of his most serious revelations have almost nothing to do with Americans at all. Or it can take the form of Snowden trumpeting the values of freedom and democracy and then openly propagandizing on behalf of authoritarian thugs. Snowden is not a man who has thought deeply and clearly on the great issues of our day. He is a child who likes the sound of his own voice.

In the Wired interview, Snowden wears his hypocrisy on his sleeve. Speaking about recent NSA leaks that raised the prospect of another leaker who isn’t working with Snowden, the defector makes the following, fairly reasonable point:

If other leakers exist within the NSA, it would be more than another nightmare for the agency—it would underscore its inability to control its own information and might indicate that Snowden’s rogue protest of government overreach has inspired others within the intelligence community. “They still haven’t fixed their problems,” Snowden says. “They still have negligent auditing, they still have things going for a walk, and they have no idea where they’re coming from and they have no idea where they’re going. And if that’s the case, how can we as the public trust the NSA with all of our information, with all of our private records, the permanent record of our lives?”

It is, of course, a fair question to ask if the NSA can be trusted with so much private information, considering how they’ve handled it. Snowden is evidence of this: the agency clearly botched his background check, since he was flagged early on. Yet they still gave a delusional troublemaker with a messiah complex access to all that information.

But Snowden himself undercut his own logic a few paragraphs earlier in the profile. Snowden mentions that he tried to leave something of a trail for the NSA to figure out what he took and what he merely looked at, but their accusations against him, he says, indicate they didn’t follow the trail:

Snowden speculates that the government fears that the documents contain material that’s deeply damaging—secrets the custodians have yet to find. “I think they think there’s a smoking gun in there that would be the death of them all politically,” Snowden says. “The fact that the government’s investigation failed—that they don’t know what was taken and that they keep throwing out these ridiculous huge numbers—implies to me that somewhere in their damage assessment they must have seen something that was like, ‘Holy shit.’ And they think it’s still out there.”

Yet it is very likely that no one knows precisely what is in the mammoth haul of documents—not the NSA, not the custodians, not even Snowden himself. He would not say exactly how he gathered them, but others in the intelligence community have speculated that he simply used a web crawler, a program that can search for and copy all documents containing particular keywords or combinations of keywords. This could account for many of the documents that simply list highly technical and nearly unintelligible signal parameters and other statistics.

That gives the reader an idea of the complexity involved, but the key sentence there is: “Yet it is very likely that no one knows precisely what is in the mammoth haul of documents—not the NSA, not the custodians, not even Snowden himself.” Why doesn’t he go ahead and check–you know, just to be sure of the precise magnitude of his irresponsibility? Oh right:

Meanwhile, Snowden will continue to haunt the US, the unpredictable impact of his actions resonating at home and around the world. The documents themselves, however, are out of his control. Snowden no longer has access to them; he says he didn’t bring them with him to Russia. Copies are now in the hands of three groups: First Look Media, set up by journalist Glenn Greenwald and American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, the two original recipients of the documents; The Guardian newspaper, which also received copies before the British government pressured it into transferring physical custody (but not ownership) to The New York Times; and Barton Gellman, a writer for The Washington Post. It’s highly unlikely that the current custodians will ever return the documents to the NSA.

He doesn’t have them. (So he says.) Just to be clear, Snowden himself is claiming that a) he doesn’t know what exactly he has leaked to the media, and b) he no longer has the documents. This is important, because it makes crystal clear that Snowden’s entire story is complete rubbish.

He claims to have been acting out of regard for data collection that could be harmful to the American people, yet he doesn’t know what he took. And he claims to be interested in the honest, capable management and handling of private citizens’ personal information, yet he has released his files to the media without being sure exactly what’s in them, and he has no control over them.

The lesson, from Snowden’s own mouth, could not be clearer: do not believe a word he says.

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The Pandering Hypocrisy of the Supposed Truth-Tellers

Glenn Greenwald certainly knows his audience. The writer at the center of the reporting on NSA defector Edward Snowden’s pilfered American security files gave an interview this week to Al-Akhbar, a Beirut-based paper whose pro-Bashar Assad extremism was too much even for Max Blumenthal. But Greenwald has a story to tell and a book to sell–it just happens to be a slightly different story depending on his audience.

If he’s talking to PBS, for example, the story is about the American security establishment’s need to return to the policies that “kept us safe with the Cold War. They could certainly keep us safe now,” as well as the necessity of keeping the Internet free to allow its users to flourish and to express themselves without fear or suffocating suspicion. But a pro-Assad publication would necessarily be a bit less concerned about American security, and it certainly wouldn’t much care for the free flow of information and personal expression. So Greenwald calibrates his pitch accordingly:

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Glenn Greenwald certainly knows his audience. The writer at the center of the reporting on NSA defector Edward Snowden’s pilfered American security files gave an interview this week to Al-Akhbar, a Beirut-based paper whose pro-Bashar Assad extremism was too much even for Max Blumenthal. But Greenwald has a story to tell and a book to sell–it just happens to be a slightly different story depending on his audience.

If he’s talking to PBS, for example, the story is about the American security establishment’s need to return to the policies that “kept us safe with the Cold War. They could certainly keep us safe now,” as well as the necessity of keeping the Internet free to allow its users to flourish and to express themselves without fear or suffocating suspicion. But a pro-Assad publication would necessarily be a bit less concerned about American security, and it certainly wouldn’t much care for the free flow of information and personal expression. So Greenwald calibrates his pitch accordingly:

AA – Is there actual movement on the ground now as a result of the publication of these documents, or is it just lip-service?

GG – There is a lot of movement, just in terms of public attitude. I think the most significant polling data I’ve seen is that every year since 9/11, Pew has asked Americans ‘do you find more threatening: the idea of foreign terrorism, or the government’s threats to your civil liberties?’, and every single year since 9/11 an overwhelming number of Americans have said ‘I fear terrorism more than I do the threat of the government infringing on my rights’, until 2013 when that completely reversed, obviously due to the Snowden disclosures. And you see politicians running in the Senate from both parties against the NSA, you see efforts to introduce bills to limit the NSA’s spying abilities, but the reality is that most of the changes are not going to come from the US government itself.

There will be symbolic gestures designed to pretend they’re doing it, but I think the limitations on the US ability to spy is going to come from a combination of other countries around the world standing together to introduce international regimes or build an infrastructure so the US doesn’t control the physical regime of the internet.

Introducing “international regimes” to control infrastructure in place of the United States or building a system with the U.S. on the outside looking into the control room are two options that would end up rolling back Internet freedom. Perhaps Greenwald thinks this is a fair tradeoff–that it’s worth sacrificing relatively unfettered Internet freedom for the sake of weakening America’s national-security apparatus. But Greenwald knows far too much about this issue to be unaware that that’s precisely what he’s suggesting.

And a publication with a history of supporting the tyrant shedding the most innocent blood in attempting to turn back the tide of the Arab Spring–and who continues to gas his opponents–is a perfect receptacle for this trash. Greenwald isn’t a truth-teller; he’s a panderer who assesses the level of hostility to American national defense in each interlocutor of his and provides them with the ammo to make their case.

Not that this is an earth-shattering revelation. The Greenwald-Snowden collaboration has been a boon to ruthless autocrats and tinpot dictators and the violence and propaganda they promote. But the piece in Al-Akhbar demonstrates the plain fact that those suffering under authoritarian regimes who would use the Internet to attempt to organize dissent have no friend in the Greenwald-Snowden tandem. They are undermined by them.

Greenwald also knew the paper would be a good place to offer some of his obtuse paranoia about another democracy that really gets under his skin:

Glenn Greenwald – We did a pretty big story that unsurprisingly didn’t get as much attention as it deserved in the American media back in September [2013] in the Guardian on how the NSA turns over massive amounts of communications to the Israelis without bothering to minimize it, and there was a Memorandum of Understanding between the Israeli surveillance agency and the NSA that we published, detailing how close the relationship was, and also part of that story there were also documents saying that although the US gives huge amounts of aid to the Israelis the Israelis are actually one of the most aggressive eavesdroppers on the US government and America generally, and that they try to make the relationship completely one-sided on behalf of Israel, so there is that that we published.

AA – Why wasn’t it made a big deal in the US?

GG – Because anything that reflects poorly on Israel is systematically ignored by most of America’s media…

The United States apparently is both an all-powerful global hegemon and bullied repeatedly by a nation the size of New Jersey. Greenwald doesn’t know which theory to believe, so he believes them both.

In any event, the purpose of this interview seems to be Greenwald’s declarations that more documents are coming on American cooperation with governments in the Middle East. Anyone who thought the project of leaking the NSA’s data collection was really going to be about curbing domestic surveillance in the name of constitutional oversight is no doubt feeling pretty silly these days.

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Edward Snowden’s Ego Trip

I don’t find myself saying this much these days, but: John Kerry is right. As NSA defector Edward Snowden has become increasingly insufferable (a condition magnified and exacerbated by his decision to speak through the rage-clenched teeth of Glenn Greenwald), the secretary of state and his diplomatic corps have visibly lost patience with the delusions and deceptions of Russia’s newest intel asset.

And who can blame them? The latest set of claims by Snowden, released as an excerpt of his NBC News interview beginning tonight, includes a whopper that the word chutzpah doesn’t begin to cover. Snowden was asked by Brian Williams why he ended up in Moscow. Snowden–a man who violated his terms of employment and stole troves of secret national-security intelligence before fleeing the country–actually blamed Kerry’s State Department:

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I don’t find myself saying this much these days, but: John Kerry is right. As NSA defector Edward Snowden has become increasingly insufferable (a condition magnified and exacerbated by his decision to speak through the rage-clenched teeth of Glenn Greenwald), the secretary of state and his diplomatic corps have visibly lost patience with the delusions and deceptions of Russia’s newest intel asset.

And who can blame them? The latest set of claims by Snowden, released as an excerpt of his NBC News interview beginning tonight, includes a whopper that the word chutzpah doesn’t begin to cover. Snowden was asked by Brian Williams why he ended up in Moscow. Snowden–a man who violated his terms of employment and stole troves of secret national-security intelligence before fleeing the country–actually blamed Kerry’s State Department:

“The reality is I never intended to end up in Russia,” he said in a second excerpt broadcast on NBC’s “Today Show.” “I had a flight booked to Cuba onwards to Latin America, and I was stopped because the United States government decided to revoke my passport and trap me in Moscow Airport. So when people ask why are you in Russia, I say, ‘Please ask the State Department.’ ”

That comment drew a sharp reaction from Secretary of State John Kerry, in an interview on the same program. “For a supposedly smart guy, that’s a pretty dumb answer, frankly,” Mr. Kerry said. He added: “He can come home, but he’s a fugitive from justice, which is why he’s not being permitted to fly around the world. It’s that simple.”

Indeed, Secretary Kerry is on the mark. Snowden’s comment is a dumb thing to say, though it’s less likely that Snowden is stupid enough to believe it and more likely that he just assumes the American media and his cheerleaders back in the States are stupid enough to believe it. Kerry isn’t buying it, but his response to Snowden wasn’t done. Later in that story, Kerry adds:

“The bottom line is this is a man who has betrayed his country, who is sitting in Russia, an authoritarian country, where he has taken refuge,” he said. “He should man up and come back to the United States if he has a complaint about what’s the matter with American surveillance, come back here and stand in our system of justice and make his case. But instead he is just sitting there taking potshots at his country, violating his oath that he took when he took on the job he took.”

Shots fired, as they say. Snowden probably thinks this is some sort of victory, since it shows that he got under Kerry’s skin. But it won’t help Snowden or his followers that Washington is pushing back and engaging in the battle to define and frame Snowden and his antics. It may not lure him back home to face the consequences of his actions, but it’s still worth engaging Snowden’s selective smearing of American institutions for the benefit of states like China and Russia.

And the provocations go in both directions. It appears President Obama got under Snowden’s skin as well, leading Snowden to protest that he’s not just some low-level techie but a masterful weapon created by the elite minds at America’s espionage organizations:

“They’re trying to use one position that I’ve had in a career here or there to distract from the totality of my experience,” he said, “which is that I’ve worked for the Central Intelligence Agency undercover overseas, I’ve worked for the National Security Agency undercover overseas and I’ve worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency as a lecturer at the Joint Counterintelligence Training Academy, where I developed sources and methods for keeping our information and people secure in the most hostile and dangerous environments around the world.” …

“I am a technical specialist,” he said. “I am a technical expert. I don’t work with people. I don’t recruit agents. What I do is I put systems to work for the United States. And I’ve done that at all levels from — from the bottom on the ground all the way to the top. Now, the government might deny these things, they might frame it in certain ways and say, ‘Oh well, you know, he’s — he’s a low level analyst.’ ”

How dare the president deny the “totality of [Snowden’s] experience.” Surely he’s aware of the work Snowden does when he powers down his laptop, jumps into the nearest phone booth, and emerges with cape flowing. Doesn’t the president know he is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? That he’s the hero Gotham deserves? That he is the terror that flaps in the night?

I’m not sure if Snowden thinks it helps his case to declare that he is a defector of far greater significance than he’s been given credit for thus far. And to be honest, this cry for attention and validation is almost endearing. He just wants to be appreciated, to give his perpetual adolescence some meaning. Kerry’s quest to get Snowden to “man up” is probably futile, but good for Kerry for pointing it out–and for referring to Snowden’s new home as an “authoritarian country.” It’s a welcome dose of clear-eyed straight talk from Foggy Bottom.

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The Tone and Thought Police at the New York Times

Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, is charged with investigating “matters of journalistic integrity.” Her recent takedown of Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Kinsley reveals a disturbing view of what that means.

At issue is Kinsley’s review of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide, in which Greenwald recounts his role in the Edward Snowden case. Greenwald is the activist blogger to whom Snowden leaked classified documents that shed light on the NSA’s controversial electronic surveillance programs.

Kinsley, truth to tell, is unkind to Snowden, and that is where the trouble begins. Sullivan thinks Kinsley’s “sneering tone” is “unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards.” Kinsley says, among other things, that Greenwald, whatever he may really be like, comes across as a “self-righteous sourpuss” in the book. Never mind that the New York Times would not have an op-ed section if sneering were ruled out of bounds. Although Kinsley gives us Greenwald’s own words to back up his assertion, it is too much for Sullivan, who apparently thinks that Kinsley should have found a way to indicate that Greenwald’s authorial voice is that of a self-aggrandizing blowhard without being insulting.

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Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, is charged with investigating “matters of journalistic integrity.” Her recent takedown of Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Kinsley reveals a disturbing view of what that means.

At issue is Kinsley’s review of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide, in which Greenwald recounts his role in the Edward Snowden case. Greenwald is the activist blogger to whom Snowden leaked classified documents that shed light on the NSA’s controversial electronic surveillance programs.

Kinsley, truth to tell, is unkind to Snowden, and that is where the trouble begins. Sullivan thinks Kinsley’s “sneering tone” is “unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards.” Kinsley says, among other things, that Greenwald, whatever he may really be like, comes across as a “self-righteous sourpuss” in the book. Never mind that the New York Times would not have an op-ed section if sneering were ruled out of bounds. Although Kinsley gives us Greenwald’s own words to back up his assertion, it is too much for Sullivan, who apparently thinks that Kinsley should have found a way to indicate that Greenwald’s authorial voice is that of a self-aggrandizing blowhard without being insulting.

Sullivan also sympathizes with Greenwald’s boosters, who have complained that Kinsley never should have been chosen to write the review. To prove the point, she links to the very same piece Glenn Greenwald does in his own published complaint about the review. Kinsley devotes a small portion of that eight-year-old piece to questioning the opinion that journalists have an absolute privilege to refuse to disclose their sources. Kinsley also devotes a few sentences to the question of whether the Constitution offers absolute protection to journalists who disclose classified information. He does not answer the question, but Sullivan, a ventriloquist for Greenwald in this matter, evidently thinks that the Book Review editor, Pamela Paul, erred when she picked someone who had ever expressed any doubt about a person’s right to do what Greenwald did without facing any consequences.

On the other hand, it’s no problem for Sullivan to take Greenwald’s side, even though she is a recipient of Greenwald’s prior, recent, and lavish praise. Greenwald has called her an “invaluable voice on all of the key issues of media criticism,” praised her willingness to “write about issues that scare away even the bravest journalists,” and credited her with “revolutioniz[ing] the public editor position in the best possible way.” Of course, Sullivan should be allowed to write about people who think she is American elite journalism’s answer to Joan of Arc, but she is surely more at fault for choosing herself to write about Greenwald than Pamela Paul is for choosing Kinsley to do the same.

Echoing Greenwald again, Sullivan proposes that the main reason Kinsley’s review was inadmissible is that Kinsley does not hold the same view as she assumes the Times must about the proper balance between national security and freedom of the press. How can the Times, famous for publishing the Pentagon Papers, print a review that argues, as Kinsley does, that “the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences”? Sullivan thinks that Kinsley’s view is inadmissible because of, well, an assortment of platitudes: there is a “special role for the press in America’s democracy”; the “Founders intended the press to be a crucial check on the power of the federal government.” Of course, these admittedly important claims do not settle the question of how best to handle the disclosure of classified information, and Kinsley doesn’t deny either of them. Nonetheless editors “should not have allowed such a denial to stand.”

To be sure, Sullivan does not insist that Pamela Paul should have rejected the review. She thinks, instead, that “editing ought to point out gaping holes in an argument.” But what if Kinsley refused to acknowledge that his disagreement with Greenwald and Sullivan meant that his reasoning was deficient? Sullivan’s argument certainly implies that, insofar as the review would then remain “unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards,” Paul would be obliged to turn it down. Yet, since Sullivan envisions no circumstance in which Kinsley’s view could be defended in America, there is no version of it that would not, for her, be full of gaping holes.

Here, then, are the standards the public editor of the New York Times applies in investigating “matters of journalistic integrity” in the book review section. 1. Readers must not be told that a favored author’s voice is grating, no matter how grating it is; 2. No one who has ever expressed doubt about a beloved author’s views can review that author’s books; 3. Reviewers who express views that, however plausible, are considered out of bounds by Times staff should be compelled to recant if they wish to get published.

The paper is in the best of hands.

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Snowden and the Cold Warriors

A curious display of projection has characterized the response by many to the revelations leaked by NSA defector Edward Snowden. The projection is understandable–even, perhaps, honorable in some cases–but projection it is. Essentially, many American commentators genuinely believed that America would be better for having Snowden divulge all this information. The problem is that the evidence suggests Snowden didn’t.

Those who thought Snowden’s revelations about domestic surveillance were an opportune moment to have an honest conversation about American national security thought Snowden did too. Those who saw in the trove of secret information the key to returning American governance to its constitutional principles took Snowden’s declaration of same without reservation. Those who thought America would be stronger for having cause to apply much-needed reforms to its overly bureaucratized national security state assumed Snowden, too, saw himself as a blessing in disguise for the Pentagon.

As the revelations began to stray from having anything to do with domestic surveillance into having everything to do with benefiting America’s enemies into whose arms Snowden ran, it became utterly clear that Snowden was not an honest man seeking an honest conversation or that he had any interest in preserving democracy (in fact just the opposite: he expressed strident hostility to the democratic process). Snowden was not a man of peace; he defected to bloodthirsty authoritarians on the eve of war.

And today an intriguing essay in Politico Magazine shines some light on who misjudged Snowden and why. Jack Devine, a former CIA veteran, sees a familiar archetype in Snowden:

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A curious display of projection has characterized the response by many to the revelations leaked by NSA defector Edward Snowden. The projection is understandable–even, perhaps, honorable in some cases–but projection it is. Essentially, many American commentators genuinely believed that America would be better for having Snowden divulge all this information. The problem is that the evidence suggests Snowden didn’t.

Those who thought Snowden’s revelations about domestic surveillance were an opportune moment to have an honest conversation about American national security thought Snowden did too. Those who saw in the trove of secret information the key to returning American governance to its constitutional principles took Snowden’s declaration of same without reservation. Those who thought America would be stronger for having cause to apply much-needed reforms to its overly bureaucratized national security state assumed Snowden, too, saw himself as a blessing in disguise for the Pentagon.

As the revelations began to stray from having anything to do with domestic surveillance into having everything to do with benefiting America’s enemies into whose arms Snowden ran, it became utterly clear that Snowden was not an honest man seeking an honest conversation or that he had any interest in preserving democracy (in fact just the opposite: he expressed strident hostility to the democratic process). Snowden was not a man of peace; he defected to bloodthirsty authoritarians on the eve of war.

And today an intriguing essay in Politico Magazine shines some light on who misjudged Snowden and why. Jack Devine, a former CIA veteran, sees a familiar archetype in Snowden:

In his new book, No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald tells how Edward Snowden once confided to him, “with a hint of embarrassment,” how much he had learned from playing video games. In the black-and-white world of video games, “the protagonist is often an ordinary person, who finds himself faced with grave injustices from powerful forces and has the choice to flee in fear or to fight for his beliefs,” Greenwald writes.

But Edward Snowden’s video-game world is not the real world. As a former director of operations for the CIA, I see Snowden in a very different light. My colleagues and I in the agency spent our careers looking for people like him—on the other side, that is. We worked hard to locate the kind of person who could be persuaded to give up his country’s secrets: narcissistic, often delusional under-achievers whom we could hope to turn into loose-lipped sources in our enemies’ camps and other hostile locations. We understood just how valuable it was to every aspect of our foreign policy to know the plans and intentions of our enemies; the best way to do this was to look for a source and exploit people like Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker, ­ to target for this purpose.

Devine does not oppose sensible reforms to the NSA data collection programs. But contrary to those who think Snowden has added much-needed context to our national-security debate, Devine correctly notes that “Like the video-game fanatic he appears to have been, Snowden has made black-and-white what is actually a very complex issue.”

Snowden and his defenders have wallowed in shallow waters, leaving the task of complicated analysis to those who can ill afford to engage merely in smug sloganeering. But another interesting aspect to this is what the whole affair tells us about why Snowden’s defenders got him so wrong. Critics of the national security state have enjoyed embarrassing themselves recently by glomming on to the notion that hawks are stuck in a Cold War frame of mind, only to have Putin’s Russia make it clear that they are the ones out of touch.

Something similar happened with Snowden. His defenders–again, out of honorable, if naïve intentions–saw in him what they wanted to see. Those who recognized Snowden right away for who he really was, it turned out, were the folks like Devine, who had decades of experience in American national security during the Cold War. Because the Cold War is basically the history of the second half of the twentieth century, it always struck me as odd that people would actually boast of ignoring that history when making policy pronouncements.

Yet that’s what the Snowden apologists did. Those with real on-the-ground experience, who weren’t willing to dismiss decades of history because it didn’t conform to their ideal of a video-game world, were the ones who understood the story from the beginning.

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Putin’s Secrets and Lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The NSA and a “Full Public Accounting”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Was the Point of Obama’s NSA Speech?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All NSA News Fit to Print?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peter King’s Misguided Attack on Rand Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Clemency for Snowden?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Complex Issue and a Simplistic Snowden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Solution in Search of a Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NSA, Metadata, and the Constitution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The NSA and Abu Musab al-Suri

Michael Hirsch is no hard-line hawk. A longtime editor at Newsweek who is now chief correspondent at National Journal, he espouses the views you might expect of a paid-up member of the East Coast media elite. So it is worth paying attention when he takes a stand so at odds with the conventional wisdom about the NSA, which claims that the spy agency is engaged in a dangerous and unproductive violation of civil liberties.

To the contrary, Hirsch argues in National Journal that the NSA’s far-flung surveillance is necessary to deal with the changing threat from al-Qaeda, which is morphing from mega-attacks like 9/11 to encouraging more “lone wolf” attacks such as those at Fort Hood and the Boston Marathon. He notes that Abu Musab al-Suri, a student of classic insurgent theory (I write about him a little in my history of guerrilla warfare, Invisible Armies), has emerged after Osama bin Laden’s death as an increasingly influential jihadist leader, and he has favored lower-level attacks all along.

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Michael Hirsch is no hard-line hawk. A longtime editor at Newsweek who is now chief correspondent at National Journal, he espouses the views you might expect of a paid-up member of the East Coast media elite. So it is worth paying attention when he takes a stand so at odds with the conventional wisdom about the NSA, which claims that the spy agency is engaged in a dangerous and unproductive violation of civil liberties.

To the contrary, Hirsch argues in National Journal that the NSA’s far-flung surveillance is necessary to deal with the changing threat from al-Qaeda, which is morphing from mega-attacks like 9/11 to encouraging more “lone wolf” attacks such as those at Fort Hood and the Boston Marathon. He notes that Abu Musab al-Suri, a student of classic insurgent theory (I write about him a little in my history of guerrilla warfare, Invisible Armies), has emerged after Osama bin Laden’s death as an increasingly influential jihadist leader, and he has favored lower-level attacks all along.

Hirsch writes that the NSA’s opponents:

may not realize that the practice they most hope to stop—its seemingly indiscriminate scouring of phone data and emails—is precisely what intelligence officials say they need to detect the kinds of plots al-Suri favors. For the foreseeable future, al-Suri’s approach will mean more terrorist attacks against more targets—albeit with a much lower level of organization and competence. “It’s harder to track. Future attacks against the homeland will be less sophisticated and less lethal, but there’s just going to be more of them,” says Michael Hayden, the former NSA director who steered the agency after 9/11 toward deep dives into Internet and telephonic data. Adds Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, “I think al-Qaida’s capabilities for a strike into the United States are more dangerous and more numerous than before 9/11.” For better or worse, the only hope to track them all is an exceptionally deep, organized, and free-ranging intelligence apparatus, experts say.

Hirsch’s entire article is well worth reading and pondering. It may shake the anti-NSA bias that seems to be creeping into our public discourse.

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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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Reality Intervenes in NSA Debate

Outraged Europeans would prefer to think that when it comes to privacy issues, they are the good guys and those nasty Americans are the bad guys. We have even been treated to the dubious spectacle in recent days of being lectured by the Germans, of all people, on how much they respect civil liberties and how little regard we have for them—which conveniently elides the inconvenient fact that the only reason that Germans have any civil liberties to enjoy is because of the U.S. Armed Forces which overthrew the Nazis and protected them from the Communists.

More to the point, the narrative of European innocence on state-sponsored snooping can only be maintained by a complete denial of reality. The details are of course classified, but some tantalizing tidbits are now seeping into public discussion. For example this Wall Street Journal article: “Millions of phone records at the center of a firestorm in Europe over spying by the National Security Agency were secretly supplied to the U.S. by European intelligence services—not collected by the NSA, upending a furor that cast a pall over trans-Atlantic relations.”

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Outraged Europeans would prefer to think that when it comes to privacy issues, they are the good guys and those nasty Americans are the bad guys. We have even been treated to the dubious spectacle in recent days of being lectured by the Germans, of all people, on how much they respect civil liberties and how little regard we have for them—which conveniently elides the inconvenient fact that the only reason that Germans have any civil liberties to enjoy is because of the U.S. Armed Forces which overthrew the Nazis and protected them from the Communists.

More to the point, the narrative of European innocence on state-sponsored snooping can only be maintained by a complete denial of reality. The details are of course classified, but some tantalizing tidbits are now seeping into public discussion. For example this Wall Street Journal article: “Millions of phone records at the center of a firestorm in Europe over spying by the National Security Agency were secretly supplied to the U.S. by European intelligence services—not collected by the NSA, upending a furor that cast a pall over trans-Atlantic relations.”

Or this AP story: “A former foreign minister of Greece says the U.S. is not the only country eavesdropping on foreign diplomats: his country’s secret services did that to U.S. ambassadors in Athens and Ankara in the 1990s.”

What a surprise: The Europeans engage in espionage and surveillance too. And, as it turns out, their spy agencies often operate with less oversight than our own.

So perhaps, just perhaps, we will hear fewer smug lectures from across the Atlantic about the horrors of the NSA and more recognition of the complex realities, including the fact that NSA surveillance helps to protect the Europeans from terrorism and other threats.

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Euro Spy Hypocrisy Is Absurd; So Is Ours

Commenting on the hypocrisy being expressed about the news that the United States spies on its European allies is more or less like trying to describe the universe. It’s infinite. The idea that there is anything particularly new or shocking about nations spying on each other even when they are theoretically allied is as childish as it is disconnected from any knowledge of history. Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut down the country’s main intelligence operation in 1929 and explained the action by infamously saying, “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” Stimson lived to rue his decision a dozen years later when, while serving as Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of war, an unprepared U.S. was surprised at Pearl Harbor. Our Max Boot summed up the stupidity of this sort of naïveté here last week and followed up today with another post highlighting the disgraceful effort by the White House to throw the intelligence community under the bus in an attempt to disassociate the president from a policy that it is hard to believe he knew nothing about.

But there’s another angle to this story that deserves to be noted. The complaints of our European allies about the supposedly dastardly behavior of the National Security Agency deserve to be treated with scorn. It should also remind us that the same kind of hypocrisy has sometimes been exhibited by the institutions that should be defended by security-minded citizens today. And by that I’m referring to the near-hysteria that erupts within the U.S. intelligence establishment anytime the notion of clemency for someone else who spied on an ally is mooted. Everyone who is defending the right of Americans to spy on allies, as well as those who think mistakes were made in doing so, should take a deep breath and consider that the crimes of Jonathan Pollard should perhaps be seen in a somewhat different context.

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Commenting on the hypocrisy being expressed about the news that the United States spies on its European allies is more or less like trying to describe the universe. It’s infinite. The idea that there is anything particularly new or shocking about nations spying on each other even when they are theoretically allied is as childish as it is disconnected from any knowledge of history. Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut down the country’s main intelligence operation in 1929 and explained the action by infamously saying, “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” Stimson lived to rue his decision a dozen years later when, while serving as Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of war, an unprepared U.S. was surprised at Pearl Harbor. Our Max Boot summed up the stupidity of this sort of naïveté here last week and followed up today with another post highlighting the disgraceful effort by the White House to throw the intelligence community under the bus in an attempt to disassociate the president from a policy that it is hard to believe he knew nothing about.

But there’s another angle to this story that deserves to be noted. The complaints of our European allies about the supposedly dastardly behavior of the National Security Agency deserve to be treated with scorn. It should also remind us that the same kind of hypocrisy has sometimes been exhibited by the institutions that should be defended by security-minded citizens today. And by that I’m referring to the near-hysteria that erupts within the U.S. intelligence establishment anytime the notion of clemency for someone else who spied on an ally is mooted. Everyone who is defending the right of Americans to spy on allies, as well as those who think mistakes were made in doing so, should take a deep breath and consider that the crimes of Jonathan Pollard should perhaps be seen in a somewhat different context.

Pollard is, of course, the U.S. Navy analyst who broke his oath and spied for Israel against the United States. What Pollard did was indefensible. He deserved to be punished and that has happened. As I wrote back in a COMMENTARY article on the subject in 2011, much of the case made for him by those backing clemency is overblown and underestimates the problems he caused:

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

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

But having said that, the ongoing effort by some to use Pollard in an effort to demonize Israel or to claim that the Jewish state behaved in a manner unbecoming an ally is undermined by the revelations about the United States’ own considerable efforts to snoop on its friends.

What is normal and even expected when it is conducted in the dark can seem indefensible when it is dragged out into the light of day, as American officials hauled before Congress are learning today. One can only hope that the backlash from the Edward Snowden leaks will not lead to a trend in which all intelligence operations will be viewed negatively. The U.S. is still locked in a life-and-death struggle with Islamist terrorists and the last thing we need is a revival of the spirit of the Church Committee, which essentially drafted the CIA into the Boy Scouts back in the 1970s when it dug up the dirt on embarrassing Cold War spy activities.

To acknowledge that American spooks are trying to do the same thing to Germany, France, Britain, and, as has been pointed out before, Israel, does not mean that the decision to use Pollard was not a colossal mistake by his handlers and their political masters. But it should cause those who have been blocking mercy for Pollard to rethink their self-righteous stand.

Though he is no hero and deserves no applause for committing a serious crime, after all these years, there is no rational case to be made for keeping Pollard in prison for spying for a friendly nation. The disproportionate nature of his sentence was obvious even when it was handed down. That is just as true today. America spies on its friends and allies and is, in turn, spied upon in the same fashion. Acknowledging this fact doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong. It’s just the way the world works. That’s a fact that should not be forgotten when clemency for Pollard is discussed.

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