Commentary Magazine


Topic: spying

How Many Snowden Documents Are Fake?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Euro Spy Hypocrisy Is Absurd; So Is Ours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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