It seems to be open season on the NSA. Hardly a day passes without more irresponsible disclosures of the cyber-techniques it uses to fight terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and hostile states such as China and Iran. The latest is the disclosure that it “has implanted software in nearly 100,000 computers around the world that allows the United States to conduct surveillance on those machines and can also create a digital highway for launching cyberattacks.”
The New York Times, which reports this news in Wednesday’s newspaper, notes that the information originally appeared in even more detailed form in two foreign newspapers: “A Dutch newspaper published the map of areas where the United States has inserted spy software, sometimes in cooperation with local authorities, often covertly. Der Spiegel, a German newsmagazine, published the N.S.A.’s catalog of hardware products that can secretly transmit and receive digital signals from computers, a program called ANT.”
Why this is news fit to print is a bit of a mystery since, as the Times notes, “there is no evidence that the N.S.A. has implanted its software or used its radio frequency technology inside the United States.” So even if you assume (wrongly) that the NSA is some kind of big brother organization engaged in nefarious monitoring of your Web-browsing habits, the efforts disclosed here are totally unrelated. Like much of what we have learned of the NSA’s activities, this relates to foreign espionage, a realm in which until now there has been pretty universal agreement that the U.S. intelligence community should do its utmost to ferret out the secrets of aggressors or potential aggressors.
It is hard to know what exactly Edward Snowden and his media enablers think they are up to. Are they advocating the position of Secretary of State Henry Stimson who in 1929 closed the State Department’s code-cracking office with the naive statement that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail”? Not quite, because even extremists like Glenn Greenwald know that such an argument would not fly with most reasonable people. So Snowden, Greenwald et al. are not actually bothering to make a cogent argument–they are simply exposing and sabotaging the NSA’s activities willy-nilly and trying to create a vague impression that the NSA has been doing something wrong.
Of course they say nothing about the cyber-intelligence activities of Iran, China, Russia, North Korea, or other states; perhaps if we knew more about what they’re up to, more people would understand the folly of the unilateral disarmament that Snowden and his acolytes seem to be advocating.
For all the incoherence of the Snowden argument, it must be admitted that it has achieved its effect, putting NSA “reform” at the top of the political agenda. All of Washington waits to see how far President Obama will go in reining in our most valuable intelligence agency; he is due to announce his position on Friday.
Let us hope he gives serious heed to the advice of knowledgeable experts such as federal Judge John Bates, a former chief judge of the court which oversees the NSA, who warns that it would be a mistake to create a privacy advocate to appear before the court or take other steps (such as limiting the FBI’s ability to issue administrative subpoenas for phone records) that numerous NSA critics have advocated.
There is a good if not incontrovertible probability that if the NSA’s present activities had existed in 2001, the 9/11 attacks might never have happened. There is an equally good probability that if we significantly rein in the NSA’s collection efforts, we are dramatically increasing the probability of another 9/11.