Commentary Magazine


Topic: NSA

Just Don’t Tell the President

When Harry Truman was getting settled in the White House and catching up on all the information FDR kept from his vice president, his aide Harry Vaughan brought him a sampling of the FBI wiretaps in which Roosevelt indulged. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had opened something of a Pandora’s box with the wiretapping capability, which FDR utilized to spy on everyone he could–including the wife of a White House advisor, as Vaughan showed Truman.

“Tell them I don’t authorize any such thing,” David McCullough quotes Truman as responding. Truman was offended by the casual eavesdropping and the blackmail that resulted from the activity. In his diary, he compared the FBI to the Gestapo, and he determined to significantly scale back Hoover’s activities. Here’s what Truman didn’t do: he didn’t wait until the snooping was discovered and made public and then pretend he had no idea what was going on. Barack Obama would do well to read up on his Truman. Obama, as the Wall Street Journal reports, is responding to the latest NSA revelations, which allege that the U.S. listened in on the phone calls of world leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel, the same way he responds to every scandal: he claims to have no idea what is taking place within his administration. From the Journal:

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When Harry Truman was getting settled in the White House and catching up on all the information FDR kept from his vice president, his aide Harry Vaughan brought him a sampling of the FBI wiretaps in which Roosevelt indulged. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had opened something of a Pandora’s box with the wiretapping capability, which FDR utilized to spy on everyone he could–including the wife of a White House advisor, as Vaughan showed Truman.

“Tell them I don’t authorize any such thing,” David McCullough quotes Truman as responding. Truman was offended by the casual eavesdropping and the blackmail that resulted from the activity. In his diary, he compared the FBI to the Gestapo, and he determined to significantly scale back Hoover’s activities. Here’s what Truman didn’t do: he didn’t wait until the snooping was discovered and made public and then pretend he had no idea what was going on. Barack Obama would do well to read up on his Truman. Obama, as the Wall Street Journal reports, is responding to the latest NSA revelations, which allege that the U.S. listened in on the phone calls of world leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel, the same way he responds to every scandal: he claims to have no idea what is taking place within his administration. From the Journal:

Officials said the internal review turned up NSA monitoring of some 35 world leaders, in the U.S. government’s first public acknowledgment that it tapped the phones of world leaders. European leaders have joined international outrage over revelations of U.S. surveillance of Ms. Merkel’s phone and of NSA’s monitoring of telephone call data in France.

The White House cut off some monitoring programs after learning of them, including the one tracking Ms. Merkel and some other world leaders, a senior U.S. official said. Other programs have been slated for termination but haven’t been phased out completely yet, officials said.

The account suggests President Barack Obama went nearly five years without knowing his own spies were bugging the phones of world leaders. Officials said the NSA has so many eavesdropping operations under way that it wouldn’t have been practical to brief him on all of them.

If the administration thinks this is “plausible deniability,” the Obama team has lost touch with reality. Was the president briefed on national security for five years without knowing that these intelligence briefings were the result of, you know, intelligence collected by his intelligence agencies? Is the argument that the most sensitive and potentially embarrassing intelligence procedures do not require his approval? At what point does Obama think it becomes necessary for him to admit that, yes, he’s the president?

The more troubling question, however, is: Why does the president think this is an appropriate response to every controversy? The president took some criticism last week for the administration’s claim that Obama didn’t know the degree to which his signature achievement, which bears his name, was at great risk of melting down immediately upon launch.

Yet as the Journal also reported last night, the president actually does have plausible deniability on ObamaCare because no one knew who was in charge:

As it becomes clear that no single leader oversaw implementation of the health law’s signature online marketplace—a complex software project that would have been difficult under the best circumstances—the accounts of more than a dozen current and former officials show how a disjointed bureaucracy led to the site’s disastrous Oct. 1 launch.

It would be easy to blame bureaucracy again and leave it at that. But the problem is more endemic to modern liberalism’s governing philosophy. Another way of saying “plausible deniability,” after all, is “lack of accountability.” Bureaucracies are so often incompatible with healthy democracy precisely because they provide plausible deniability, which in turn incentivizes government ineptitude.

The pursuit of deniability makes bureaucracy an inviting refuge for an aspiring government official determined to shift the blame for anything that happens on his watch. It’s especially attractive to someone, like Barack Obama, who always wants to appear to be an outsider taking on the establishment. Yet that same “deep state” structure he claims to be appalled by is where he takes shelter every time there’s a controversy to disown.

Sometimes the deniability the president claims is believable, sometimes it isn’t. But it’s a poor excuse because it reveals his desperate avoidance of accountability. That the president is out of the loop is one thing; that he’s there by choice is quite another.

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Multilateral Counterterrorism and the Sovereignty Objection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why We Spy

I have a word of advice for American allies outraged by alleged NSA spying on their leaders: Grow up. That means you Germany. You too France. And you, Brazil. Mexico too. Also the EU and the UN.

Does the NSA spy on your leaders? Probably. Do you spy on leaders of allied states including the United States? Probably. You just don’t have the resources or capability to spy as effectively as the NSA does. But if you did, you would.

Don’t bother denying it. All states subscribe to the principle enunciated by Lord Palmerston, the 19th century British foreign minister and prime minister: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

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I have a word of advice for American allies outraged by alleged NSA spying on their leaders: Grow up. That means you Germany. You too France. And you, Brazil. Mexico too. Also the EU and the UN.

Does the NSA spy on your leaders? Probably. Do you spy on leaders of allied states including the United States? Probably. You just don’t have the resources or capability to spy as effectively as the NSA does. But if you did, you would.

Don’t bother denying it. All states subscribe to the principle enunciated by Lord Palmerston, the 19th century British foreign minister and prime minister: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

In the pursuit of their interests, all states need as much information as possible about the actions and (even harder to fathom) the intentions of other states, even (or perhaps especially) those with whom they are allied at the moment. There is pretty much no state on whose automatic loyalty you can count. Witness how our close allies the French refused to support the Iraq war but took the lead in Mali. Or how the Germans chose to sit out Iraq but participated in Afghanistan. And that’s only looking at security policy; economic policy is also a big deal. The reason why all advanced nations spend a lot of money on intelligence is, in part, to help them answer such questions.

Sure, a much bigger part of the intelligence budget goes, as it should, to analyzing the actions and intentions of enemies, but even if you are narrowly focused on bad actors such as Iran or al-Qaeda, you must have accurate information on the actions of your allies: Will the Germans support tougher sanctions? Will the Italians cooperate in a rendition? And so on. That’s why nations spy on each other in private, even while pledging eternal friendship in public.

That’s why the U.S. intelligence community fears penetration by the intelligence service of Israel (an ally) at least as much as it fears penetration by the intelligence services of avowed enemies such as Iran and Cuba. And with good cause.

There is a partial exception: the “five eyes” alliance between the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Those nations, which have been sharing sensitive signals intelligence since World War II, probably don’t spy on each other’s leaders–but they do spy on each other’s citizens. In fact this intelligence sharing allows them to do an end-run around prohibitions on domestic surveillance: the Brits can spy on our citizens, we can spy on theirs, and then we can share the results.

Everyone else–every other country outside the “five eyes”–is fair game for American spying, and we are fair game for theirs. Of course the leaders of France, Germany, Brazil, et al. know this. But their voters don’t. Much of their anger is faked for public consumption. The only outrage is that anyone is outraged.

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Nixon’s Ghost and the Specter of Hypocrisy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Of Course America Spies on the UN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Miranda’s Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mistakes, Not Abuse at NSA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NSA and Snowden Battle for Legitimacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is Rand Paul’s Foreign Policy “Libertarian”?

Chris Christie’s criticism of the brand of libertarian foreign policy championed by Rand Paul, and Paul’s immediate response to Christie, seemed to energize Paul’s supporters and touch off an intra-party debate on national security long in the making. But the parameters of that debate were far less significant than the tone suggested. As Jonathan wrote, Christie made the comments on a panel with other Republican governors and was in the minority not for his beliefs but for his willingness to state them (in Christie’s classically confrontational style, no less).

The other governors at the event–Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker–may not have been willing to engage Paul but neither did they seem opposed to Christie’s general perspective on foreign affairs. Indeed, the issue at play is domestic surveillance–an issue that was part of Paul’s memorable filibuster. But beyond concerns about the surveillance state, there isn’t much indication that even those assumed to be on Paul’s side actually believe in American retrenchment from the world. The most interesting politician on that score is not Christie or Marco Rubio (or the others, like Paul Ryan, on record supporting a robust foreign policy) but rather the congressman who spearheaded the attempt to curb the NSA’s scope: Justin Amash.

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Chris Christie’s criticism of the brand of libertarian foreign policy championed by Rand Paul, and Paul’s immediate response to Christie, seemed to energize Paul’s supporters and touch off an intra-party debate on national security long in the making. But the parameters of that debate were far less significant than the tone suggested. As Jonathan wrote, Christie made the comments on a panel with other Republican governors and was in the minority not for his beliefs but for his willingness to state them (in Christie’s classically confrontational style, no less).

The other governors at the event–Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker–may not have been willing to engage Paul but neither did they seem opposed to Christie’s general perspective on foreign affairs. Indeed, the issue at play is domestic surveillance–an issue that was part of Paul’s memorable filibuster. But beyond concerns about the surveillance state, there isn’t much indication that even those assumed to be on Paul’s side actually believe in American retrenchment from the world. The most interesting politician on that score is not Christie or Marco Rubio (or the others, like Paul Ryan, on record supporting a robust foreign policy) but rather the congressman who spearheaded the attempt to curb the NSA’s scope: Justin Amash.

Amash was recently profiled by National Review’s John J. Miller, in which Miller noted that Amash was touted by Reason magazine as “the next Ron Paul.” In his interview with Miller, however, Amash made a point of differentiating himself from the elder Paul on issues including foreign policy. (Amash said “Ron Paul was an important educational figure, not a typical politician,” quite far from a ringing endorsement of Paul’s congressional activity.)

In an earlier interview with Reason, Amash provided much more insight into how he views his libertarian foreign policy. Here is a telling series of exchanges between Amash and Reason editor Nick Gillespie:

reason: What about in Afghanistan and Iraq? Because there was an authorization for the use of military force. Is that still binding? What’s wrong with that as a blank check for the president to keep prosecuting the war on terror?

Amash: I think it’s okay for Congress to give authorizations that—it doesn’t have to read “Declaration of War.” I think what the Founders really intended was that Congress would be the starting point for all this. So whether you call it an authorization or a declaration of war is not as big a deal to me. But the war in Afghanistan, that’s the longest war in U.S history, and now—

reason: Should we have invaded Afghanistan?

Amash: I think so, at the time. And it should have been for a limited purpose: to take out the terrorists who targeted us on 9/11.

reason: You have been an outspoken critic of the use of drones, particularly in countries we’re not officially at war with. But going after bin Laden in Pakistan, say: Is that legal under the authorization that sanctioned intervening in Afghanistan?

Amash: I think so, to go after bin Laden. He was clearly in charge of the operation and I think it was legal to go after him. There are a lot of other situations where it’s more questionable. If we’re going after people who have nothing to do with 9/11, whether they are terrorists or not, it’s the president’s job to come back to Congress and say, “This is who we’re going after and this is why,” and for Congress to give the authorization.

That was Amash justifying the legality of the Iraq War while supporting the invasion of Afghanistan and sending the military into Pakistan to get bin Laden. Elsewhere in that same interview, Amash struck a thoughtful balance on Syria, and gives the following answer when asked about sanctions and military action against Iran:

Iran is a much more real threat. They speak out against the United States on a regular basis; it’s pretty clear they’re trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Sanctions that are directed toward preventing them from getting weapons of mass destruction, I think those sanctions are useful and helpful in the short run. I’m not sure you’d want to use them for 20 years.

But there are other sanctions that are targeted at the people of Iran. Those are not beneficial to the United States. If I felt Iran was a genuine threat to the United States, I would give the president authorization to do what’s necessary.

Amash also spoke about the emotional significance of the 9/11 attacks to him and how the event spurred his increased interest in politics. None of this is to suggest that Amash’s foreign policy priorities are indistinguishable from those of, say, John McCain. But it’s important to understand the limited scope of Rand Paul’s argument on the NSA. It has obvious populist appeal and is well worth the discussion Paul has raised.

But the question of whether Paul’s opposition to drones and wiretapping portends a libertarian shift in GOP foreign policy obscures the more important question: What, exactly, do we mean when we say “libertarian foreign policy”? Rand Paul has been vague enough on his own worldview, aside from the use of drones, to keep this question unanswered. But if Paul wants a major retrenchment from the world and a more isolationist foreign policy, he does not appear to be speaking for any major politician but himself–and that includes those we think of as staunch libertarians.

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Vital NSA Program Survives House Vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Is Justified in Prosecuting Leakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Questions Build As Snowden Retreats

Edward Snowden may have been acting independently when he downloaded and leaked information about the NSA’s surveillance programs, but the moment he became a fugitive abroad he became dependent on the generosity of his various hosts and, to a lesser extent, the media. He now seems to be alienating both.

Of course, he’d already begun to wear out his welcome in Moscow when he was offered asylum by Vladimir Putin if Snowden would agree to keep his mouth shut. Snowden, at the time fielding offers from warmer climates, spurned Russia’s open hand. He then went crawling back to Putin for asylum when it became clear that leaving Russia would be more complicated than it seemed, but the condition still applies and he’s wavering. Now the press is growing visibly tired of Snowden’s world-traveling ego trip.

The New York Times carries a story today on how Russia is using Snowden for propaganda value, and offers a pristine demonstration of passive-aggressive journalism. First, the Times explains that Russian lawmakers are attempting to make the case that Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance and cooperation with communication firms proves that Russia must have more control over electronic communication:

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Edward Snowden may have been acting independently when he downloaded and leaked information about the NSA’s surveillance programs, but the moment he became a fugitive abroad he became dependent on the generosity of his various hosts and, to a lesser extent, the media. He now seems to be alienating both.

Of course, he’d already begun to wear out his welcome in Moscow when he was offered asylum by Vladimir Putin if Snowden would agree to keep his mouth shut. Snowden, at the time fielding offers from warmer climates, spurned Russia’s open hand. He then went crawling back to Putin for asylum when it became clear that leaving Russia would be more complicated than it seemed, but the condition still applies and he’s wavering. Now the press is growing visibly tired of Snowden’s world-traveling ego trip.

The New York Times carries a story today on how Russia is using Snowden for propaganda value, and offers a pristine demonstration of passive-aggressive journalism. First, the Times explains that Russian lawmakers are attempting to make the case that Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance and cooperation with communication firms proves that Russia must have more control over electronic communication:

Two members of Russia’s Parliament have cited Mr. Snowden’s leaks about N.S.A. spying as arguments to compel global Internet companies like Google and Microsoft to comply more closely with Russian rules on personal data storage.

These rules, rights groups say, might help safeguard personal data but also would open a back door for Russian law enforcement into services like Gmail.

“We need to quickly put these huge transnational companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook under national controls,” Ruslan Gattarov, a member of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, or Federation Council, said in an interview. “This is the lesson Snowden taught us.”

But then the Times hits Snowden with a not-so-subtle dig at his naïveté:

American information technology companies operating in Russia routinely face demands from law enforcement to reveal user data, and have less recourse than in the United States to resist in the courts.

The Russian reaction may surprise Mr. Snowden most of all. In an interview with The Guardian, he said he unveiled details of N.S.A. surveillance because “I don’t want to live in a world where there is no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”

In other words, he maybe should have expected this. Indeed, self-described “whistleblowers” in American who flee the U.S. with reams of data supposedly proving the U.S. to be some sort of evildoer–human rights abuser, surveillance state, etc.–immediately discover they have landed themselves in something of a quandary: it is highly unlikely they will find asylum in a country that doesn’t undermine the nobility of their quest.

Snowden is a perfect example. As the Times begins its story today: “Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, fled the United States saying he did not want to live in a surveillance state.” And to where did the brilliant young Mr. Snowden flee? China. And then Putin’s Russia. And from Russia, he tried getting to Ecuador. And then Venezuela. You get the picture.

Of course we can ask where else he might have gone. Europe? Where British and French domestic spying are legendary and without the oversight the U.S. applies? Where exactly do you go if you want to leave the United States for freer lands? You go where Snowden went, which is quite literally nowhere: he has been holed up in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport for weeks now, living in sovereign limbo.

This is not to dismiss as automatically illegitimate Snowden’s complaints about the NSA. It’s merely to point out that Snowden was the one who left the U.S. because he didn’t want to live in a surveillance state, and Snowden is the one right now begging to live in a surveillance state. He may have some fair concerns about American policy, but he isn’t exactly bursting with credibility.

In addition, his credibility is suffering further because his independence is being called into question. Last week, when Snowden called a meeting with “human rights” officials at the airport, the journalist Joshua Foust noticed that he was accompanied by a woman who runs public relations for the FSB, Russia’s domestic security apparatus. Foust continued:

As a rule, when a cleared intelligence employee seeks refuge in another country running a hostile intelligence service while carrying gigabytes of top secret documents, that isn’t the behavior of a whistleblower. That is the behavior of a defector. The involvement of known FSB operatives at his asylum acceptance – and the suddenly warm treatment of HRW and Transparency International after months of government harassment – suggests this was a textbook intelligence operation, and not a brave plea for asylum from political persecution.

Foust isn’t alone. Today the Moscow Times has a long article asking many related questions. Why, for example, had the Federal Migration Service not received a request for asylum from Snowden? Who is helping Snowden live for nearly a month in the transit zone? Who helped Snowden organize a meeting with those human rights groups? Who is communicating on his behalf? The article quotes one human rights activist saying: “I did not understand what the meaning of the meeting was … It was very clear that the meeting was more like a news conference, albeit with no journalists present.”

If journalists who are sympathetic to reforming the NSA are nonetheless openly speculating that Snowden is acting like a foreign spy, not a whistleblower, it is clear Snowden’s behavior is not doing him any favors. It’s wouldn’t be outrageous to suggest Snowden should demonstrate some transparency, but it’s not clear he would appreciate the irony.

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Expansive Intelligence Is Not Enough

Edward Snowden’s leaks continue to dribble out, keeping the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor in the news. First, China feigned surprise at U.S. espionage even though their cyber-espionage and hacking knows no parallel, and then European leaders huffed indignant, even though their own intelligence services do much the same thing. Most recently, Latin American leaders are outraged at revelations that the United States sought to intercept their communications.

For Americans, the scandal should not be how expansive NSA surveillance is overseas (warrantless surveillance on Americans is another issue), but rather why—if the NSA is as good as the hyped leaks suggest it is—U.S. intelligence has been so bad. Snowden’s leaks suggest that the NSA has penetrated communications so deeply as to be almost omniscient. While that conclusion is likely exaggerated, the degree of American foreknowledge of both allies’ and adversaries’ communications raise questions about why U.S. policymakers haven’t been able to capitalize on that information.

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Edward Snowden’s leaks continue to dribble out, keeping the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor in the news. First, China feigned surprise at U.S. espionage even though their cyber-espionage and hacking knows no parallel, and then European leaders huffed indignant, even though their own intelligence services do much the same thing. Most recently, Latin American leaders are outraged at revelations that the United States sought to intercept their communications.

For Americans, the scandal should not be how expansive NSA surveillance is overseas (warrantless surveillance on Americans is another issue), but rather why—if the NSA is as good as the hyped leaks suggest it is—U.S. intelligence has been so bad. Snowden’s leaks suggest that the NSA has penetrated communications so deeply as to be almost omniscient. While that conclusion is likely exaggerated, the degree of American foreknowledge of both allies’ and adversaries’ communications raise questions about why U.S. policymakers haven’t been able to capitalize on that information.

Alas, having an overwhelming information advantage does not translate into quality intelligence. Take the FBI: Years after 9/11, it still took weeks to translate intercepts from critical languages. Between 2006 and 2008, the FBI failed to review 31 percent of the electronic files it collected, nor did it review 25 percent—representing 1.2 million hours—of audio intercepts.

Intercepts can help those seeking to hunt, capture, or kill an individual target, but they seldom are more valuable than newspapers or public statements when it comes to an adversary’s policy. Nor does signals intelligence and other intercepts substitute completely for human intelligence, a capability which the United States seems to have let slide over the decades. Regardless, no amount of signals intelligence enabled the U.S. government to predict the Arab Spring, nor the Egyptian Army’s countercoup. The best intelligence analysts are often those who read the open-source press rather than those who are attracted to the top-level intelligence likes moths to a flame. Context matters. Newspapers and traditional political reporting often give more insight than those reading transcripts of phone calls or a subject’s emails.

Compartmentalization also matters. Despite the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, federal agencies are still just as bad as they were before about sharing information that could help avert tragedies or advance American interests. National security advisors today are more trusted political sounding boards than bureaucrats capable of coordinating the U.S. national-security apparatus.

Nor is flawless intelligence enough to advance U.S. interests absent a coherent U.S. grand strategy. For a generation, if not more, the United States has been reacting to events rather than trying to determine them. Managing diplomatic relations is like cycling in place; it does not advance U.S. interests.

Damage control from Snowden’s leaks will consume years, if not decades, but it is also long past time for U.S. officials to consider why, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been so unsuccessful in both defining and fulfilling its goals.

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Snowden’s Plea: No Consequences, Please

The cheat sheet for charting NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s prospects for escaping accountability is to pay attention to his rhetoric. He began his escapade arrogant, reveling in the attention, the fame, and the praise he was getting from those who love to see America take it on the chin. Then he was defiant, as it became clear he was a wanted man but still had options and a way out of Hong Kong before he could be extradited or cross the authorities.

And then he spoke like a martyr–the typical tone employed by useful idiots upon arriving triumphantly in Moscow. He put out a delusional statement because his treatment as a hero had gone to his head and he seemed no longer to be in touch with reality. But reality would inevitably and quickly get back in touch with Snowden. As Peter Savodnik, author of a forthcoming book on Lee Harvey Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union, writes, “the history of Americans fleeing to Moscow is a long and unhappy one.” Snowden held a meeting with “human rights” officials in Moscow today, where he seemed to acknowledge his predicament and the fact that beggars can’t be choosers:

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The cheat sheet for charting NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s prospects for escaping accountability is to pay attention to his rhetoric. He began his escapade arrogant, reveling in the attention, the fame, and the praise he was getting from those who love to see America take it on the chin. Then he was defiant, as it became clear he was a wanted man but still had options and a way out of Hong Kong before he could be extradited or cross the authorities.

And then he spoke like a martyr–the typical tone employed by useful idiots upon arriving triumphantly in Moscow. He put out a delusional statement because his treatment as a hero had gone to his head and he seemed no longer to be in touch with reality. But reality would inevitably and quickly get back in touch with Snowden. As Peter Savodnik, author of a forthcoming book on Lee Harvey Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union, writes, “the history of Americans fleeing to Moscow is a long and unhappy one.” Snowden held a meeting with “human rights” officials in Moscow today, where he seemed to acknowledge his predicament and the fact that beggars can’t be choosers:

Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive American intelligence contractor, met with representatives of international human rights organizations at his temporary Moscow airport refuge on Friday afternoon and appealed for their help in seeking asylum status in Russia until he can safely travel to Latin America.

Breaking his silence and seclusion after having spent nearly three weeks in the international transit zone at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, Ms. Snowden told the representatives that “the only way for him to have safety guarantees for temporary stay in Russia is apparently to get an asylum in Russia,” Tanya Lokshina, a Human Rights Watch representative who attended the meeting, said in an e-mail. “So he is asking for one.”

The author of that report, the New York Times’s Ellen Barry, had earlier tweeted that Snowden “says he accepts all offers, present and future.” Three weeks is a long time to spend in an airport. It seems to be a case of life imitating art, as Snowden was initially compared to a Tom Hanks film character who was forced to live in an airport because diplomatic disruptions had suddenly left him with nowhere to go. But the more apt comparison really might be the no-name character in an episode of The Office who wants to have her place in line saved while she goes to the restroom and is rebuffed by Dwight’s “I’m sorry, were you raised in a household with no consequences?”

Where did Snowden get the idea that bypassing the legal framework and the American justice system and giving America’s national-security secrets to dictators and autocrats would–or should–have no consequences? It was only too appropriate that he was helped by the organization Human Rights Watch. (Again, beggars can’t be choosers.) HRW released a daft statement discouraging countries from extraditing Snowden to the U.S.

But the HRW statement shows just how confused Snowden’s advocates are. The group says Snowden should be entitled to lawful whistleblower protections. But Snowden was the one who declined to utilize America’s whistleblower protections and eschewed the legal process that would have afforded him those protections. Additionally, HRW says Snowden is a whistleblower but should be treated as America treats “refugees” and “dissidents” from other countries. So which is it?

That’s not such an easy question to answer, apparently, even for Snowden’s fans. A Quinnipiac poll on Snowden made the rounds this week as journalists claimed it found that, as this NBC report asserted, “More than half of American voters say self-declared NSA leaker Edward Snowden is a whistle-blower not a traitor, according to a poll published Wednesday.” In fact it most certainly did not say that. Here is the question Quinnipiac asked: “Do you regard Edward Snowden, the national security consultant who released information to the media about the phone scanning program, as more of a traitor, or more of a whistle-blower?”

If forced to choose between “whistleblower” and “traitor,” and then qualify each with the poll’s added hedge phrase, just over half said Snowden is kinda sorta more of a whistleblower than a traitor. Not only is this poll question far too limited in its choices, but it’s also based a false premise: Snowden has not been charged with treason. The poll tells us pretty much nothing.

But what the U.S. thinks of Snowden is not as important to him right now as what Vladimir Putin thinks of him. Putin had previously said Snowden could stay in Russia as long as he stopped his fanatic public crusade against the U.S. But Snowden is indicating, once again, that he was raised in a household with no consequences. Ellen Barry tweeted that Snowden’s opinion seems to be that “His work is not meant to damage US, so Putin’s condition is no obstacle.”

Snowden’s toddler’s logic is an insult to Putin, who probably won’t appreciate it. It’s not really up to Snowden to decide whether he already meets the terms Putin offered, and it’s not very bright of him to pretend that his claimed intentions should mean anything to his host. But it’s also an indication that he has no plans to stop leaking damaging information. Those considering granting him asylum will no doubt keep that in mind.

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To Reduce Leaks, Slash the Bureaucracy

President Obama has reportedly unveiled a creepy and controversial program to undercut leaks within the federal government. Like President George W. Bush—who also sought to wage war on leakers—Obama’s initiative is doomed to fail. The federal government employs almost 4.5 million people. Granted, that’s off the all-time high of 1968, but it still represents a huge amount of fat, and it doesn’t include the ballooning amount of private contractors. Indeed, perhaps 4 million people hold “top secret” clearance including, as the Washington Post noted, packers and craters.

At the same time, outlets for leaks have expanded rapidly. Any government official is just an email away. Local papers might be dying, but a whole generation of bloggers and Washington-based journalists rely on receiving leaks in order to do their jobs. Hardly a Starbucks exists in central Washington in which government officials can’t on occasion be heard discussing issues that are probably classified: it is an irony of the onerous and uncoordinated security procedures to enter each other’s office buildings that leads bureaucrats and appointees to find an unsecured middle ground.

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President Obama has reportedly unveiled a creepy and controversial program to undercut leaks within the federal government. Like President George W. Bush—who also sought to wage war on leakers—Obama’s initiative is doomed to fail. The federal government employs almost 4.5 million people. Granted, that’s off the all-time high of 1968, but it still represents a huge amount of fat, and it doesn’t include the ballooning amount of private contractors. Indeed, perhaps 4 million people hold “top secret” clearance including, as the Washington Post noted, packers and craters.

At the same time, outlets for leaks have expanded rapidly. Any government official is just an email away. Local papers might be dying, but a whole generation of bloggers and Washington-based journalists rely on receiving leaks in order to do their jobs. Hardly a Starbucks exists in central Washington in which government officials can’t on occasion be heard discussing issues that are probably classified: it is an irony of the onerous and uncoordinated security procedures to enter each other’s office buildings that leads bureaucrats and appointees to find an unsecured middle ground.

In the meantime, smuggling information out is easier than ever. Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Edward Snowden reportedly used an illegal thumb drive, as did alleged WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning. Computer networks allow analysts to acquire reams of documents. No longer do spies (or leakers) need miniature cameras, nor do they need to meet in underground parking garages.

Anyone who has ever worked in the federal government knows just how bizarre people can be. It gets worse in the intelligence community, where the culture of secrecy often allows the bizarre to thrive. As some high-profile retirees demonstrate, those who spent decades poring over foreign communications, speeches, and intercepts can often absorb some of the biases and conspiracies of the societies they studied. Those who have also worked in the government also are daily witness to tremendous waste and bureaucratic fat. Parkinson’s Law is alive and well. The simple fact is that the government could likely work just as well with less.

Perhaps it’s time for Obama and, indeed, any administration to recognize that leaks are proportional to the size of the government and compounded by the size of databases and the increasingly large groups of people able to access them. If the government wants to reduce leaks, the easiest and most effective path would be less government. That would take the strain off background investigators and allow the government both to reduce access and make leaks of such material more easily traceable.

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France’s Domestic Surveillance

The sound you hear is my chortling over the news that France’s intelligence agencies undertake domestic surveillance at least as far-reaching as that of the NSA which European leaders have been criticizing. France also spies on users of Google and Facebook, among other Web networks. The biggest difference between the French and American systems is that the former is run without the elaborate oversight that attends the latter’s activities. Le Monde reports that the French system is run with “complete discretion, at the margins of legality and outside all serious control.”

France is also a top offender in spying on its allies–something that President Hollande has denounced as unacceptable. As this account notes: “Back in 2011, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, France and not China or Russia, was found to be the country that conducted the most industrial espionage on other European countries. WikiLeaks also revealed that the spying network was so widespread that ‘damages it caused the German economy were larger as a whole than those caused by China or Russia.’ ”

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The sound you hear is my chortling over the news that France’s intelligence agencies undertake domestic surveillance at least as far-reaching as that of the NSA which European leaders have been criticizing. France also spies on users of Google and Facebook, among other Web networks. The biggest difference between the French and American systems is that the former is run without the elaborate oversight that attends the latter’s activities. Le Monde reports that the French system is run with “complete discretion, at the margins of legality and outside all serious control.”

France is also a top offender in spying on its allies–something that President Hollande has denounced as unacceptable. As this account notes: “Back in 2011, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, France and not China or Russia, was found to be the country that conducted the most industrial espionage on other European countries. WikiLeaks also revealed that the spying network was so widespread that ‘damages it caused the German economy were larger as a whole than those caused by China or Russia.’ ”

One would hope that these revelations would spare us more mock outrage of the kind being heard from so many countries over NSA activities that are, if anything, limited and tame compared to what they routinely undertake. But rest assured, facts will not stand in the way of America’s critics who are looking for any excuse to kick Uncle Sam in the shins.

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The Damage Snowden Has Done

With Edward Snowden still stuck in the purgatory of Moscow’s international airport, it is worth taking a moment to note some news reporting of recent days on the damage he has already done.

The Associated Press reports that “members of virtually every terrorist group, including core al-Qaida, are attempting to change how they communicate, based on what they are reading in the media, to hide from U.S. surveillance.”

The Washington Post reports that intelligence analysts scouring NSA databases to figure out what Snowden stole believe there is a lot more information in his possession than has already come out: “They think he copied so much stuff — that almost everything that place does, he has,” said one former government official.

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With Edward Snowden still stuck in the purgatory of Moscow’s international airport, it is worth taking a moment to note some news reporting of recent days on the damage he has already done.

The Associated Press reports that “members of virtually every terrorist group, including core al-Qaida, are attempting to change how they communicate, based on what they are reading in the media, to hide from U.S. surveillance.”

The Washington Post reports that intelligence analysts scouring NSA databases to figure out what Snowden stole believe there is a lot more information in his possession than has already come out: “They think he copied so much stuff — that almost everything that place does, he has,” said one former government official.

The Daily Beast reports that Snowden made encrypted digital copies of all of his files and sent them contacts around the world, with the proviso that if anything happens to him the recipients of his files will receive the passwords needed to unlock them.

It may be the case that whoever Snowden sent the files to can’t unlock them without a password, but there is little doubt that the intelligence services of major countries such as Russia and China can easily break through password protections.

The Los Angeles Times reports on the widespread assumption that Russian intelligence agents have already gotten access to “his treasure trove of U.S. intelligence data,” whether he wanted to give it to them or not: “Agents could copy Snowden’s confidential computer files without his cooperation, as he has been in their custody for days in a diplomatic no man’s land at Sheremetyevo airport.” It goes without saying that Chinese intelligence, which is at least as sophisticated as the Russian service, gained access to the same files while Snowden was on their home turf in Hong Kong.

Little wonder, then, that Gen. Keith Alexander, head of NSA, has said that Snowden “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies.” Snowden may in fact prove to be one of the worst traitors in American history. The only puzzle is why he still has any defenders left.

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Why It Matters that Kerry Blinked First

“Of course you can have a copy of the transfer order for the file, Danny. I’m here to help in anyway I can,” Col. Nathan Jessup says to Lt. Daniel Kaffee in A Few Good Men, after Kaffee requests some paperwork important to his investigation that threatens to bring down Jessup’s career. “You believe that, don’t you, Danny? That I’m here to help anyway I can? The corporal will take you by Personnel on your way out to the flight line, and you can have all the transfer orders that you want.”

As Kaffee’s team turns to leave, Jessup adds, the smile gone from his face: “But you have to ask me nicely.” Kaffee, at first stunned, sheepishly complies.

It seems John Kerry either had a similar experience with his Russian counterpart or he had recently watched A Few Good Men, because no sooner was he making demands of Russia and China than he suddenly expressed a marked change in tone. For those who hoped Kerry’s initial tough talk on Russia’s hesitation to extradite NSA leaker Edward Snowden represented a foreign-policy team suddenly infused with a dose of self-respect, think again:

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“Of course you can have a copy of the transfer order for the file, Danny. I’m here to help in anyway I can,” Col. Nathan Jessup says to Lt. Daniel Kaffee in A Few Good Men, after Kaffee requests some paperwork important to his investigation that threatens to bring down Jessup’s career. “You believe that, don’t you, Danny? That I’m here to help anyway I can? The corporal will take you by Personnel on your way out to the flight line, and you can have all the transfer orders that you want.”

As Kaffee’s team turns to leave, Jessup adds, the smile gone from his face: “But you have to ask me nicely.” Kaffee, at first stunned, sheepishly complies.

It seems John Kerry either had a similar experience with his Russian counterpart or he had recently watched A Few Good Men, because no sooner was he making demands of Russia and China than he suddenly expressed a marked change in tone. For those who hoped Kerry’s initial tough talk on Russia’s hesitation to extradite NSA leaker Edward Snowden represented a foreign-policy team suddenly infused with a dose of self-respect, think again:

When Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Russia on Monday as a repressive country, he personally offended Mr. Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov. On Tuesday, Mr. Lavrov lashed out at the United States, saying, “There are no legal grounds for this kind of behavior from American officials toward us.”

Within hours, though, the two sides appeared to pull back. Mr. Kerry told reporters traveling with him in Saudi Arabia that the United States was “not looking for a confrontation.” And American and Russian officials meeting in Geneva on Tuesday scheduled a session next week between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov to discuss Syria.

Russia is a repressive country. Kerry said so. Sergey Lavrov said the U.S. has no right to even talk that way about Russia. Kerry seems to think he has a point. The Obama White House’s decision to permit Hillary Clinton to essentially veto Susan Rice’s possible nomination to be secretary of state was always going to have certain repercussions, especially because Kerry was widely viewed as the obvious understudy. One of those repercussions was that it no doubt pleased Lavrov’s crew, who complained about Rice at the UN.

At the mere prospect of Rice continuing on as U.S. ambassador to the UN, her Russian counterpart Vitaly Churkin joked that he would ask for “double pay.” Rice was criticized for her undiplomatic language toward the UN envoys from corrupt, authoritarian states, but if she was tough on Churkin it was because she knew more than her critics. Just how much more is clear from today’s investigative report published on the website of Foreign Policy magazine from UN reporter Colum Lynch.

Lynch writes that “For much of the past decade, Russia has been engaged in a systematic effort to stymie attempts to root out corruption in U.N. spending. The Russians have pushed out U.N. reformers. They’ve defanged watchdogs. And they’ve blocked internal budget reforms aimed at saving costs.” For most of that time, Churkin has been the Russian envoy to the UN. Of course, he carries out the diplomatic wishes of Lavrov and Vladimir Putin, but Rice’s job was to scold Churkin, not the others.

But Kerry’s job is to deal with Lavrov, who is no doubt appreciating that fact this week. And Lynch’s story on Russia’s UN corruption demonstrates why the timidity of the Obama administration, most awkwardly embodied by Kerry this week, matters to the functionality of the international system. The New York Post is having some fun with the administration today:

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The fact that Russia has been able to thoroughly corrupt various activities of the UN while also using the world body to obstruct efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear drive and protect murderous dictators like Bashar al-Assad illustrates an irony that Obama has never quite understood. In order to pull back on America’s global responsibilities without chaos, there has to be a robust international order in which multilateral cooperation can replace unilateral action. But that international order cannot emerge without strong U.S. leadership.

It’s not the easiest balance to strike, but the current administration is clearly not even close to doing so, and it has chosen a secretary of state who will continue that trend.

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Obama’s Diplomatic Humiliation

Forget “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?” The hottest real-time game in the world is: Where in the world is Edward Snowden? The rogue NSA techie—who, in the judgment of the NSA’s head, Gen. Keith Alexander, “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies”—has fled Hong Kong and wound up in Moscow. He was rumored to be heading to Ecuador via Havana but he didn’t make the Aeroflot flight he was expected to take, leaving a pack of journalists who bought tickets to photograph an empty seat. So presumably Snowden remains in Russia at least for the time being, with rumors swirling that Ecuador or possibly Venezuela remain his destination of choice.

No matter what he’s up to, he’s making the United States government look foolish. Hong Kong’s decision—which, in effect, means Beijing’s decision—to let him leave even though he is wanted on felony charges in the United States and had his passport suspended suggests that notwithstanding the positive atmospherics from the recent summit meeting between President Obama and President Xi Jinping, there remain sharp limits on how far the Communist regime is willing to go to accommodate American concerns. Indeed, Beijing seems to be positively reveling in Snowden’s unfortunate revelations about the NSA’s penetration of Chinese computer networks, which serves to deflect attention from the much more massive intrusions into computer networks both foreign and domestic that Beijing routinely undertakes. Vladimir Putin, for his part, doesn’t seem to have heard of any “reset” in relations with the U.S. He, too, appears happy to grant Snowden sanctuary, at least for a short while, as a way of giving Uncle Sam the middle finger.

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Forget “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?” The hottest real-time game in the world is: Where in the world is Edward Snowden? The rogue NSA techie—who, in the judgment of the NSA’s head, Gen. Keith Alexander, “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies”—has fled Hong Kong and wound up in Moscow. He was rumored to be heading to Ecuador via Havana but he didn’t make the Aeroflot flight he was expected to take, leaving a pack of journalists who bought tickets to photograph an empty seat. So presumably Snowden remains in Russia at least for the time being, with rumors swirling that Ecuador or possibly Venezuela remain his destination of choice.

No matter what he’s up to, he’s making the United States government look foolish. Hong Kong’s decision—which, in effect, means Beijing’s decision—to let him leave even though he is wanted on felony charges in the United States and had his passport suspended suggests that notwithstanding the positive atmospherics from the recent summit meeting between President Obama and President Xi Jinping, there remain sharp limits on how far the Communist regime is willing to go to accommodate American concerns. Indeed, Beijing seems to be positively reveling in Snowden’s unfortunate revelations about the NSA’s penetration of Chinese computer networks, which serves to deflect attention from the much more massive intrusions into computer networks both foreign and domestic that Beijing routinely undertakes. Vladimir Putin, for his part, doesn’t seem to have heard of any “reset” in relations with the U.S. He, too, appears happy to grant Snowden sanctuary, at least for a short while, as a way of giving Uncle Sam the middle finger.

Then we come to Ecuador, whose president, Rafael Correa, appears to be bidding for leadership of the anti-American bloc in Latin America—a position left open by Fidel Castro’s enfeeblement and Hugo Chavez’s death. He has already granted refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy to WikiLeaks founder and accused rapist Julian Assange. Now he may very well try to grant sanctuary to Snowden too. He is entitled to do that, but Washington should make clear to him that if he does so he will suffer the consequences—including a loss of trade privileges that could threaten the $10.7 billion worth of goods that nation exports to the U.S. every year.

This is all, it must be said, a colossal embarrassment for President Obama. He looks, to unsympathetic eyes at least, to be a budding tyrant (witness all of the absurd and overheated comparisons between the NSA’s measured and carefully controlled activities and those of authoritarian states such as China and Iran which spy on their own people to suppress dissent)—and a notably ineffectual one at that who can’t even snare one Pepsi-swilling, pizza-gobbling computer geek.

It may well be that case that a Republican president—John McCain or Mitt Romney—would have had no more success in apprehending Snowden, but the equanimity with which other states rebuff our appeals for his apprehension makes clear that the U.S. is suffering a significant loss of respect. Quite simply, the U.S. is no more universally loved than it was prior to Obama’s ascension—and now we are less respected too. As anyone who consults Machiavelli will know, this is not a recipe for a prince’s success.

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From Fugitive to Hostage for Snowden?

Such is the interest in Edward Snowden’s travel plans that a plane taking off without him on board is newsworthy. But the news that a Moscow-to-Cuba plane left Sheremetyevo Airport without Snowden is receiving prominent placement–and three reporter bylines, as well as seven contributing bylines for background on the story–on the New York Times’s website.

That may seem like overkill, but in fact it’s appropriate. And it may signal that the diplomatic angle of this case is about to escalate. Over the weekend, Snowden left Hong Kong with Cuba or Ecuador as his expected destination but with a stopover in Moscow first. Though he was seemingly there only to catch his connecting flight, that would have been a strange development, considering that Vladimir Putin has more to gain from virtually any scenario other than one in which Snowden just passes through Russia on his continuing search for asylum.

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Such is the interest in Edward Snowden’s travel plans that a plane taking off without him on board is newsworthy. But the news that a Moscow-to-Cuba plane left Sheremetyevo Airport without Snowden is receiving prominent placement–and three reporter bylines, as well as seven contributing bylines for background on the story–on the New York Times’s website.

That may seem like overkill, but in fact it’s appropriate. And it may signal that the diplomatic angle of this case is about to escalate. Over the weekend, Snowden left Hong Kong with Cuba or Ecuador as his expected destination but with a stopover in Moscow first. Though he was seemingly there only to catch his connecting flight, that would have been a strange development, considering that Vladimir Putin has more to gain from virtually any scenario other than one in which Snowden just passes through Russia on his continuing search for asylum.

The Obama administration has asked Russia to send Snowden back to the U.S. for prosecution. That means Putin can win points from the Obama administration and its allies in the West by complying and cooperating. Or he can play to domestic anti-Americanism–as China did by refusing to extradite Snowden–and let the fugitive leaker continue on his journey. But each of those two options can be “supersized,” so to speak, by detaining Snowden first.

Earlier reports from the Times shed light on the timing of Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong:

Two Western intelligence experts, who worked for major government spy agencies, said they believed that the Chinese government had managed to drain the contents of the four laptops that Mr. Snowden said he brought to Hong Kong, and that he said were with him during his stay at a Hong Kong hotel.

If that were the case, they said, China would no longer need or want to have Mr. Snowden remain in Hong Kong.

Chinese authorities seemed anxious to get rid of Snowden since they didn’t want to hand him over to the U.S. and didn’t want to be the center of public pressure over it. But they obviously wanted to know everything Snowden knew, and since no thinking person would ever take Snowden’s word for anything, they could not just ask him. There was likely no need to ask anyway, and the Times report suggests that was indeed the case.

So China chose Option No. 2: play to domestic anti-Americanism and let Snowden go. But the Chinese leadership made sure to maximize its benefits by getting access to all of Snowden’s information first. Letting Snowden leave was almost certainly a strategic error on China’s part, since they could have won credit for returning Snowden to the U.S. while still obtaining all the U.S. government secrets Snowden carried with him and ensured that no one else would gain access to Snowden.

Russia and China may act in concert at the UN Security Council, but they are rivals. Letting Snowden go to Russia enabled the Russian security services to try their hand at wringing secrets out of Snowden, and perturbed the U.S. For the same reasons, it would have been strategically foolhardy for Russia to simply ignore Snowden. And today’s Times report very credibly hints that Putin never truly considered this option:

It was unclear how Mr. Snowden spent his time at the airport or precisely where. The departure of the flight to Havana from Moscow came after an all-night vigil by journalists who were posted outside a hotel in the transit zone of the airport where Mr. Snowden was apparently staying. But on Monday morning, hotel staff said that no one named Snowden was staying there.

Russian news services had reported that Mr. Snowden would take the flight to Cuba, prompting a late rush for tickets from the horde of journalists gathered at the airport. But others dismissed it as a ruse to put the news media and others off Mr. Snowden’s trail.

One of the reasons Snowden’s decision to flee to Hong Kong was so detrimental to the U.S. was because, as Max Boot pointed out presciently and immediately, he would be almost certainly unable to hide the information he held on electronic devices from the Chinese government, even if he wanted to withhold the state secrets. It’s unclear whether Russian hacking abilities match those of the Chinese government, but what the Putin regime may lack in technological proficiency it can certainly make up in persuasive questioning from the FSB.

Snowden’s detour through Russia, then, is likely to yield an intelligence windfall for Putin regardless of what he decides to do with Snowden once Snowden goes from being a useful idiot to a useless idiot. Thus it never made much sense for Putin to stand aside. Today’s reports align much more with common sense. Now, if Putin does get the intel he’s looking for from Snowden, what he does next will depend on whether he cares more about domestic opinion or America’s. Putin can do what China did and appeal to nationalist sentiment by refusing to extradite Snowden to the U.S. Or he can one-up China by gaining Snowden’s intelligence and then winning Western plaudits by cooperating.

Russian public opinion has not recently been at the forefront of Putin’s mind, but then again neither has Obama’s. Of course, he could hand Snowden over to American authorities only in return for some additional concession, outplaying both the U.S. and China. It would be ironic, certainly, for Snowden to flee the U.S. in the name of openness and transparency only to become a hostage of the Russian security services.

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