Commentary Magazine


Topic: Edward Snowden

Glenn Greenwald Whitewashes the Crimes of Edward Snowden

Glenn Greenwald, Ed Snowden’s amanuensis, has gone ballistic over my blog post about Snowden’s emetic New York Times op-ed. He claims, with his typical flair for understatement, that I am guilty of propagating “lies” when I wrote that, in his op-ed, Snowden lacked the courage to criticize the surveillance apparatus erected by his host, Vladimir Putin, which is far vaster and more intrusive than those that he attacks in the Western democracies. In fact, Greenwald claims that Edward Snowden is far more courageous than I am because he “sacrificed his liberty and unraveled his life in pursuit of his beliefs.” Read More

Glenn Greenwald, Ed Snowden’s amanuensis, has gone ballistic over my blog post about Snowden’s emetic New York Times op-ed. He claims, with his typical flair for understatement, that I am guilty of propagating “lies” when I wrote that, in his op-ed, Snowden lacked the courage to criticize the surveillance apparatus erected by his host, Vladimir Putin, which is far vaster and more intrusive than those that he attacks in the Western democracies. In fact, Greenwald claims that Edward Snowden is far more courageous than I am because he “sacrificed his liberty and unraveled his life in pursuit of his beliefs.”

So Snowden is supposed to be the embodiment of bravery even though — unlike, say, Daniel Ellsberg — he is not willing to face a fair trial in the United States, which, in contrast to Russia, has an independent justice system? Instead, he fled to Moscow where he lives in gilded comfort under the protection of the tyrannical Putin and his secret police.

Greenwald claims that Snowden “unraveled his life” in pursuit of The Truth, but in fact what he did was to give up an anonymous existence as a low-level drone in a dead-end government job to become a global celebrity who is feted by the likes of Glenn Greenwald and accorded space to expound his views in the pages of the world’s most prestigious newspapers. Who, a few years ago, would have cared what Ed Snowden thought? Now, it seems, far too many people do. Who says crime doesn’t pay?

Snowden, after all, isn’t exactly shivering in Siberia and surviving on black bread and swamp water. He is living a comfortable existence, presumably at the expense of the Russian government, in one of the world’s most expensive cities with ritzy restaurants, chi chi shops, and chic bars galore. He has even been joined in his luxurious exile by his girlfriend. This isn’t bravery. It’s grandstanding without paying the price — without, that is, risking a lengthy jail term for the crimes that Snowden has plainly committed.

As for the substance of Snowden’s article, Greenwald is right that I missed one brief passing mention of Russia. Snowden did applaud products offering encryption from companies such as Apple. “Such structural technological changes can ensure access to basic privacies beyond borders, insulating ordinary citizens from the arbitrary passage of anti-privacy laws, such as those now descending upon Russia,” Snowden wrote.

I’m not sure what “anti-privacy laws” are or how laws “descend” — on parachutes? In the real world, laws are passed or promulgated by someone. In the West, they come from elected legislators. In Russia, from the Kremlin and Putin’s rubber stump Duma. Perhaps that’s Snowden’s gentle way of alluding (without mentioning Putin’s name) to the growing tyranny of Russia’s president, who is surveilling his citizens like crazy and crushing dissent in the best Soviet tradition. But, yes, it’s true that there was one mention of Russia—one of the world’s most egregious dictatorships — amid an article that spends the other 99% of its verbiage decrying supposed intrusions on privacy in the United States and other Western democracies. And I’m sorry I missed it. But that’s called an omission or an oversight — it’s not a “lie.”

Likewise, Greenwald makes much of the fact that Snowden published an article in the Guardian last year entitled, “Vladimir Putin must be called to account for surveillance just like Obama.” I didn’t see this article, but it’s hardly the full-throated assault on Putin that the Guardian headline-writers made it out to be. It’s all about a question Snowden was permitted to ask Putin at a carefully choreographed televised forum staged by Putin to glorify himself: “Does [your country] intercept, analyse or store millions of individuals’ communications?” Putin denied it — an obvious lie — but instead of saying so forthrightly, Snowden merely wrote that Putin’s answer was “suspiciously narrow” and “evasive.” “In fact,” he continued, “Putin’s response was remarkably similar to Barack Obama’s initial, sweeping denials of the scope of the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs, before that position was later shown to be both untrue and indefensible.”

That is moral equivalence at its most untrue and indefensible. There is no comparison between the brutal dictatorship that Putin created and the liberal democracy of which Barack Obama is the elected leader. The State Department’s 2014 Human Rights Report lists a long litany of abuses committed by Snowden’s hosts.

A few highlights:

During the year Russia adopted laws that impose harsh fines for unsanctioned meetings; identify nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as “foreign agents” if they engage in “political activity” while receiving foreign funding; suspend NGOs that have U.S. citizen members or receive U.S. support and are engaged in “political activity” or “pose a threat to Russian interests”; recriminalize libel; allow authorities to block Web sites without a court order; and significantly expand the definition of treason. Media outlets were pressured to alter their coverage or to fire reporters and editors critical of the government…

Due process was denied during the detentions and trials of protesters arrested following the May 6 demonstration in Moscow in which a small group of the protestors engaged in violence; in the detention, trial, and sentencing of the members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot, who were charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred; and searches and criminal cases lodged against several political activists. Individuals responsible for the deaths of prominent journalists, activists, and whistleblowers, notably Sergey Magnitskiy, have yet to be brought to be brought to justice.

Other problems reported during the year included: allegations of torture and excessive force by law enforcement officials; life-threatening prison conditions; interference in the judiciary and the right to a fair trial; abridgement of the right to privacy; restrictions on minority religions; widespread corruption; societal and official intimidation of civil society and labor activists; limitations on the rights of workers; trafficking in persons; attacks on migrants and select religious and ethnic minorities; and discrimination against and limitation of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons. The government failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity.

And that’s to say nothing of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his illegal annexation of Crimea, his minions’ shoot-down of a civilian airliner, the rape of Chechnya, and other war crimes too numerous to mention.

When Ed Snowden publicly denounces in plain language these and other civil liberties abuses committed by his Russian hosts — well, then I will have been proved wrong about his hypocrisy. But Snowden’s mealy-mouthed suggestions that perhaps there’s more to Russian mass surveillance than Putin lets on or that there may be some problems with Russian “anti-privacy laws” are hardly evidence that he is willing to bite the hand that feeds him.

The larger points in my blog post stand: that Snowden has diminished our security against terrorist attack, that he is a traitor (not a word I use lightly or often), and that he is selective and hypocritical in his outrage, focusing his ire on the US, where there are ample civil liberties safeguards on government surveillance, while living as a guest of a despotic state that tramples on the liberty of its citizens and invades its neighbors.

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The Traitor’s Triumph

Would the New York Times have run an op-ed from Iva Toguri (Tokyo Rose) criticizing America’s World War II policies? From Aldrich Ames criticizing America’s cold war policies? Or from Khalid Sheikh Muhammad criticizing America’s policies in the war on terror?

The Times just did the equivalent by running an op-ed by an author identified as follows: “Edward J. Snowden, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and National Security Agency contractor, is a director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.” A more accurate description would be “Edward J. Snowden, a defector to Vladimir Putin’s Russia who betrayed the trust placed in him by the US government, is…” Read More

Would the New York Times have run an op-ed from Iva Toguri (Tokyo Rose) criticizing America’s World War II policies? From Aldrich Ames criticizing America’s cold war policies? Or from Khalid Sheikh Muhammad criticizing America’s policies in the war on terror?

The Times just did the equivalent by running an op-ed by an author identified as follows: “Edward J. Snowden, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and National Security Agency contractor, is a director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.” A more accurate description would be “Edward J. Snowden, a defector to Vladimir Putin’s Russia who betrayed the trust placed in him by the US government, is…”

But what’s more eye-rolling than the identification of the op-ed is the substance of it. Edward Snowden, you see, is taking a victory lap. He begins by saying that he wasn’t sure his revelations—a.k.a. his criminal disclosures of vital American national security secrets—would have much of an impact. But he’s happy to see he was wrong: “In a single month, the N.S.A.’s invasive call-tracking program was declared unlawful by the courts and disowned by Congress. After a White House-appointed oversight board investigation found that this program had not stopped a single terrorist attack, even the president who once defended its propriety and criticized its disclosure has now ordered it terminated.”

Snowden is right—he did trigger a backlash against the NSA’s surveillance. But that’s hardly cause for celebration because the NSA is our front-line defense against terrorists. Snowden is responsible for neutering the metadata program that the former CIA acting director says could have prevented 9/11. All of the lawmakers who just voted against reauthorizing the Patriot Act should understand how happy their vote has made this traitor.

But Snowden is untroubled by the implication of his actions. He is positively reveling in his global celebrity, which has come about because of his crimes. He is determined to roll back government surveillance powers and avers himself dismayed that legislatures in Australia, Canada, and France are expanding surveillance powers to fight terrorism. (His tendentious rendering of that is to write: “Spymasters in Australia, Canada and France have exploited recent tragedies to seek intrusive new powers despite evidence such programs would not have prevented attacks.”)

Oddly enough nowhere in his article — which is datelined Moscow — does he mention the surveillance apparatus of his host, Vladimir Putin, which far exceeds in scope anything created by any Western country. As the Daily Beast noted, “The FSB has far more power to eavesdrop on Russian and foreign citizens than the FBI or the NSA.” That would be the same FSB that has taken Snowden into its bosom as it has previously done (in its earlier incarnation as the KGB) with previous turncoats such as Kim Philby.

And, of course, there are no legal safeguards on government surveillance in Russia. Whatever Putin wants, he can do. Another difference: Whereas in the US, surveillance is strictly targeted to catch terrorists, in Russia it’s used to catch anyone who dares to criticize Putin’s rule, much less to rally fellow citizens to seek a change of government.

But of course Ed Snowden is not courageous enough, or stupid enough, to criticize the dictatorship that he has defected to. It’s much easier and safer to criticize the country he betrayed from behind the protection provided by the FSB’s thugs. The only mystery is why the Times is giving this traitor a platform.

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Obama Administration Again Proves It Cannot Be Trusted with Your Data

Yesterday’s important ObamaCare revelation was the latest in a series of Obama-era developments in which big-government projects prove their conservative critics correct. This particular aspect of the administrative state is, however, worse than incompetence. It’s yet another proof that the government cannot be trusted with the private information it gathers from the public.

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Yesterday’s important ObamaCare revelation was the latest in a series of Obama-era developments in which big-government projects prove their conservative critics correct. This particular aspect of the administrative state is, however, worse than incompetence. It’s yet another proof that the government cannot be trusted with the private information it gathers from the public.

This has been an ongoing debate that conservatives have lately been winning handily. Democrats moved to require more transparency in those who make political donations, though the Democrats sought to protect major liberal donor groups like unions. Conservatives said the information would be used to harass and target donors. The Obama administration then promptly proved conservatives right, by doing just that.

Then the IRS scandal came to light. Conservative and pro-Israel groups were targeted for nonprofit status, and part of the targeting was invasive questioning. It was unnecessary and unfairly applied, but conservatives also said the IRS couldn’t be trusted with the information. The IRS then proved them right, going on a leaking spree and releasing confidential information, in some cases to ideological allies for cooperative (and very much illegal) targeting. Concerns about government use of private information have infused opposition to gun-control legislation as well.

And now comes perhaps the least surprising entry in the list: the government’s ObamaCare website is sharing insurance customers’ personal information with advertisers. The Obama campaign and administration have already perfected the art of borderline stalkerish email spamming. Now they want to share the wealth. The AP reports:

The government’s health insurance website is quietly sending consumers’ personal data to private companies that specialize in advertising and analyzing Internet data for performance and marketing, The Associated Press has learned.

The scope of what is disclosed or how it might be used was not immediately clear, but it can include age, income, ZIP code, whether a person smokes, and if a person is pregnant. It can include a computer’s Internet address, which can identify a person’s name or address when combined with other information collected by sophisticated online marketing or advertising firms.

Your address, family plans, and personal habits. The Obama administration wants to share this information with strangers. Besides for the obvious general creepiness of this administration’s behavior on almost every subject, why are they doing this? For precisely the Orwellian reasons you would imagine:

The Obama administration says HealthCare.gov’s connections to data firms were intended to help improve the consumer experience. Officials said outside firms are barred from using the data to further their own business interests.

There is no evidence that personal information has been misused. But connections to dozens of third-party tech firms were documented by technology experts who analyzed HealthCare.gov and then confirmed by AP. A handful of the companies were also collecting highly specific information. That combination is raising concerns.

Let’s agree to disagree on the definition of “misused,” shall we? The first part is truly rich: the government just wants to “improve the consumer experience.” It doesn’t matter that you didn’t, well, ask them to. The government knows what’s best for you, and what’s best for you is the government’s ability to make a quick buck by invading your privacy.

As I said, this isn’t really all that surprising. But it does reinforce an important point: the government cannot be trusted with your personal information. This is a plain fact. It’s possible in the future we’ll have a non-creepy administration. That time is not now.

And it’s not just about what the Obama administration chooses to do with your personal information. It’s also that the ObamaCare portal doesn’t protect that information from companies it didn’t intend to permit to violate you, as opposed to the ones it did:

A former White House chief information officer, Theresa Payton, said third-party vendors are a weak link on any website. She questioned both the number of vendors on HealthCare.gov and the specific details some of them are collecting.

“You don’t need all of that data to do customer service,” said Payton, who served under President George W. Bush. “We know hackers are just waiting at the door, salivating to get at this data.”

Indeed they are. Considering the Obama administration’s record on protecting information from hackers–having social media accounts hacked by ISIS fanboys, the Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning affairs–the public is right to be concerned. In privacy, as in pretty much everything else, the administration has no idea what it’s doing, and seemingly no appetite to remedy that.

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How Many Snowden Documents Are Fake?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Snowden Can’t Be Trusted–Just Ask Him

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Pandering Hypocrisy of the Supposed Truth-Tellers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Snowden, Greenwald, and the NY Times’s “High Standards”

Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times, believes that the paper’s Book Review made an error in assigning Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide to Michael Kinsley. No Place to Hide is Greenwald’s account of how he helped to expose the revelations of fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, first in the pages of the Guardian, where Greenwald briefly worked as a blogger, and then through the auspices of First Look Media, an online news organization that he launched last October alongside documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and radical journalist Jeremy Scahill. (I wrote about this trio last year.) Kinsley, needless to say, did not like the book.

That’s his right, Sullivan acknowledges, but she nonetheless found his review to be “unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards.” Why? First is its “sneering tone about Mr. Greenwald,” a fantastically oblivious criticism given Greenwald’s trademark contemptuous writing style. Next, Sullivan accuses Kinsley of repudiating the “special role for the press in America’s democracy.” This is a complete mischaracterization of Kinsley, who merely argued that “newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences.” Snowden and Greenwald have arrogated to themselves that final say; Kinsley believes, quite reasonably, that these two men should not be the final arbiters of America’s national-security secrets.

Sullivan believes that Book Review editor Pamela Paul made a mistake in not thoroughly scrubbing the review of such heresies. “It’s wrong to deny that role,” she writes, of Kinsley’s supposed trashing of the First Amendment, “and editors should not have allowed such a denial to stand.” Having failed to adopt the Greenwaldian view of state secrets (a view apparently shared by Sullivan), Kinsley thus had no right to express his disapproval in the august pages of the Times

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Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times, believes that the paper’s Book Review made an error in assigning Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide to Michael Kinsley. No Place to Hide is Greenwald’s account of how he helped to expose the revelations of fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, first in the pages of the Guardian, where Greenwald briefly worked as a blogger, and then through the auspices of First Look Media, an online news organization that he launched last October alongside documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and radical journalist Jeremy Scahill. (I wrote about this trio last year.) Kinsley, needless to say, did not like the book.

That’s his right, Sullivan acknowledges, but she nonetheless found his review to be “unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards.” Why? First is its “sneering tone about Mr. Greenwald,” a fantastically oblivious criticism given Greenwald’s trademark contemptuous writing style. Next, Sullivan accuses Kinsley of repudiating the “special role for the press in America’s democracy.” This is a complete mischaracterization of Kinsley, who merely argued that “newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences.” Snowden and Greenwald have arrogated to themselves that final say; Kinsley believes, quite reasonably, that these two men should not be the final arbiters of America’s national-security secrets.

Sullivan believes that Book Review editor Pamela Paul made a mistake in not thoroughly scrubbing the review of such heresies. “It’s wrong to deny that role,” she writes, of Kinsley’s supposed trashing of the First Amendment, “and editors should not have allowed such a denial to stand.” Having failed to adopt the Greenwaldian view of state secrets (a view apparently shared by Sullivan), Kinsley thus had no right to express his disapproval in the august pages of the Times

In light of Sullivan’s concern for how the Times chooses writers to cover particular subjects, I wonder what she has to say about another matter in this regard. Last August, the New York Times Magazine assigned Peter Maass to write a profile of Poitras, whose fervently critical films about the Iraq War attracted the attention of Snowden, who reached out to her when he was contemplating how to publish the NSA information he had stolen. Poitras, Maass wrote sympathetically, had become “the target of serious – and apparently false – accusations,” namely, that she had foreknowledge of a deadly ambush carried out on American troops in the town of Adhamiya in 2004 by Iraqi insurgents, an ambush that she filmed. Ever since that incident, Poitras has been questioned dozens of times by Homeland Security officials upon re-entering the United States, a tribulation that Maass writes about with uncritical sympathy.

The case, however, is not as clear-cut as Maass portrayed. “It seems that she had pre-knowledge that our convoy, or our patrol, was going to get hit,” Brandon Ditto, the leader of the platoon that was ambushed, told John McCormack of the Weekly Standard last year. Skepticism of Poitras was also voiced by John R. Bruning, author of a 2006 book that detailed the ambush. “To be exactly positioned to capture a vehicular ambush in the middle of Baghdad is either a huge fluke or you have foreknowledge that that was coming,” he said. To Maass, however, Poitras is a dissident hero, harassed by the jack-booted thugs of a government out to silence her.

Fast-forward six months. Maass is rewarded for his obsequiousness with a job as senior writer at none other than First Look Media. This is somewhat akin to the revolving door that thrusts mainstream, supposedly “straight” news reporters (16 at last count) into the Obama administration. When someone who has devoted their career to reporting abandons that line of work to join the very people he used to write about, it is entirely fair to question the quality and objectivity of their previous work. Why, after all, would Barack Obama choose a Jay Carney as his spokesman (as opposed to some career Democratic Party flack) unless he had found his reporting to be eminently favorable? In light of the Maass episode, which, to my knowledge, no media ethicist has yet to comment upon, one might think that an editor at the Times magazine (or, failing that, the Times’s public editor), would question whether the magazine has buyer’s remorse for assigning a piece about a highly controversial figure to a man whose writing about said figure was so credulous that she later awarded him a job.

Last year, when Poitras learned that the Guardian had assigned veteran news reporter Ewen MacAskill to accompany her and Greenwald to Hong Kong, where Snowden was hiding, she became angry and suspicious. “Who has vetted him?” she demanded of Greenwald. In the contest for most sycophantic coverage of the Snowdenista crew, Peter Maass passed with flying colors.

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Edward Snowden’s Ego Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Tone and Thought Police at the New York Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The paper is in the best of hands.

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U.S. Right to Indict Chinese Cyber Spies

The Obama administration has stirred plenty of controversy with its unprecedented indictments of five Chinese People’s Liberation Army hackers, attached to the infamous Unit 61398, on charges of spying on major American companies. Beijing–and plenty of other capitals–is screaming hypocrisy because of the large-scale American surveillance activities revealed by Edward Snowden.

There is, however, a crucial difference: While the U.S. intelligence community does target economic data from various countries, to help trade negotiators and for other ends, it does not, as far as is known, give any of the resulting information to American companies. Not so in China, Russia, France, or other countries where the relationship between industry and government is much tighter. By contrast, the U.S. intelligence community really does focus on national-security objectives, hard as that may be for cynical foreigners (or even some Americans) to believe.

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The Obama administration has stirred plenty of controversy with its unprecedented indictments of five Chinese People’s Liberation Army hackers, attached to the infamous Unit 61398, on charges of spying on major American companies. Beijing–and plenty of other capitals–is screaming hypocrisy because of the large-scale American surveillance activities revealed by Edward Snowden.

There is, however, a crucial difference: While the U.S. intelligence community does target economic data from various countries, to help trade negotiators and for other ends, it does not, as far as is known, give any of the resulting information to American companies. Not so in China, Russia, France, or other countries where the relationship between industry and government is much tighter. By contrast, the U.S. intelligence community really does focus on national-security objectives, hard as that may be for cynical foreigners (or even some Americans) to believe.

The administration should be commended for its actions, given the inevitable pushback from Beijing. The indictments shine a spotlight on Chinese hacking, alert American companies to the danger, and may possibly lead the Chinese government to dial back its outrageous and routine theft of American industrial secrets. This action also highlights the fact that–contrary to the arch-traitor Snowden–the U.S. is hardly alone or the worst offender when it comes to electronic espionage.

What the indictment does not do is actually lead to any meaningful sanctions against the named individuals who remain in China far beyond the reach of American law. The administration must show that this is not a symbolic one-off but part of a long-term campaign against Chinese cyber-theft and cyber war (the two are closely connected) that will result in more meaningful consequences for China beyond public embarrassment. One way to proceed would be for the U.S. intelligence community to show that it has the capability to steal Chinese industrial secrets too and will do so unless China shows more respect for American intellectual property. Mutually Assured Destruction worked in the nuclear arena. Why not in cyber war?

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Snowden and the Cold Warriors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Putin’s Secrets and Lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Edward Snowden, Putin Propagandist

Back in September, I described Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he lectured Barack Obama over Syria, as an example of Putin’s trollpolitik. He is an exceptional practitioner of concern trolling, and he has taken particular delight in criticizing Obama over his supposed military adventurism. Edward Snowden’s eastward defection with damaging American intelligence secrets was a boon to Putin’s trollpolitik.

Snowden’s defenders preferred to pretend he was a public servant; his leaks did, after all, win his correspondents the public service Pulitzer. But their arguments began to fall apart when Snowden made them look like fools by leaking all sorts of information that had nothing to do with Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights and everything to do with providing strategic advantages to the American adversaries who took turns hosting Snowden before Putin’s Russia gave him a more permanent home.

And now Snowden has further humiliated his defenders. Putin hosts an occasional call-in question-and-answer session with the public, often playfully referred to as the Putin telethon. Today’s edition featured a very special guest:

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Back in September, I described Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he lectured Barack Obama over Syria, as an example of Putin’s trollpolitik. He is an exceptional practitioner of concern trolling, and he has taken particular delight in criticizing Obama over his supposed military adventurism. Edward Snowden’s eastward defection with damaging American intelligence secrets was a boon to Putin’s trollpolitik.

Snowden’s defenders preferred to pretend he was a public servant; his leaks did, after all, win his correspondents the public service Pulitzer. But their arguments began to fall apart when Snowden made them look like fools by leaking all sorts of information that had nothing to do with Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights and everything to do with providing strategic advantages to the American adversaries who took turns hosting Snowden before Putin’s Russia gave him a more permanent home.

And now Snowden has further humiliated his defenders. Putin hosts an occasional call-in question-and-answer session with the public, often playfully referred to as the Putin telethon. Today’s edition featured a very special guest:

NSA leaker Edward Snowden put a direct question to Vladimir Putin during a live televised question-and-answer session Thursday, asking Russia’s president about Moscow’s use of mass surveillance on its citizens.

Speaking via a video link, Snowden asked: “I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance, so I’d like to ask you: Does Russia intercept, store or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals?”

Putin replied by stating Russia did not carry out mass surveillance on its population, and that its intelligence operations were strictly regulated by court orders.

“Mr Snowden, you are a former agent, a spy, I used to work for the intelligence service, we are going to talk one professional language,” Putin said, according to translation by state-run broadcaster Russia Today.

“Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law so…you have to get a court permission to stalk that particular person.

“We don’t have as much money as they have in the States and we don’t have these technical devices that they have in the States. Our special services, thank God, are strictly controlled by society and the law and regulated by the law.”

He added: “Of course, we know that terrorists and criminals use technology so we have to use means to respond to these, but we don’t have uncontrollable efforts like [in America].”

Edward Snowden: esteemed public servant by day, craven Putin propagandist … also by day. It’s a long day.

Much of Putin’s telethon, to judge by the translations offered by Putin’s more experienced propagandists at RT, was a mix of threats and spin. According to RT, Putin was asked if Russia would invade other parts of Ukraine to claim territory for Russia, as was done in Crimea. His response was a barely-veiled warning that he would be happy to take by intimidation rather than force. “The point is that with the understanding how important the force is, the states could develop and strengthen reasonable behavior rules in the international arena,” he responded.

The same transcript also gives readers a glimpse at the whiny, aggrieved brat lurking inside the ostentatious tough-guy façade (italics in the original):

Referring to the 2009 “Reset” in relations, Putin said the agreement ended after the US and NATO intervened in Libya and plunged the country into chaos.

“We believe this is not our fault. This double-standard approach always disappoints us. Behaving like the US did in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is allowed, but Russia is not allowed to protect its interests,” said Putin. He added that Russia was not trying to sour its relations with the EU and hopes this feeling is reciprocated.

The idea that all was well in U.S.-Russian relations until the spring of 2011 is utterly ridiculous, but this is standard fare from Putin. In fact, however, Putin’s own statement (if the translation is correct) refutes itself. It wasn’t really the intervention in Libya that ended the reset, Putin hints, because NATO has intervened before. It’s that, according to Putin, “Russia is not allowed to protect its interests,” despite NATO’s actions. What Putin wants is to be able to invade his neighbors at will. If he can’t do that, well then the reset is off. Which is why it was never really extant in the first place.

This agenda, of invading and destabilizing neighboring states, is what Snowden is propagandizing in service of. And Putin’s lies about domestic surveillance are what Snowden, who supposedly stormed off to China and Russia over his need to protest such actions at home, are what Snowden is helping to feed the Russian public. The real public service Snowden has done, then, is to make it clear just how much of a hypocrite and an authoritarian tool he really is.

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A Pitiful Pulitzer Pick

The Pulitzer Prize board has just managed to do the impossible. It has awarded a prize that deserves to be spoken of in the same conversation with its risible 1932 award to the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty for articles whitewashing the evils of Stalinist Russia.

The award of the Public Service prize to the Washington Post and the Guardian for serving as a mouthpiece for Edward Snowden is an attempt by the journalistic establishment to put its stamp of approval on the actions of one of the most destructive traitors in U.S. history—a former NSA contractor who has done untold damage to American intelligence gathering efforts against Russia, China, Al Qaeda, and other essential targets by revealing some of the most secret information that the U.S. government possesses. As Politico notes, this prize is “certain to be interpreted as a vindication of the former government contractor’s efforts.”

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The Pulitzer Prize board has just managed to do the impossible. It has awarded a prize that deserves to be spoken of in the same conversation with its risible 1932 award to the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty for articles whitewashing the evils of Stalinist Russia.

The award of the Public Service prize to the Washington Post and the Guardian for serving as a mouthpiece for Edward Snowden is an attempt by the journalistic establishment to put its stamp of approval on the actions of one of the most destructive traitors in U.S. history—a former NSA contractor who has done untold damage to American intelligence gathering efforts against Russia, China, Al Qaeda, and other essential targets by revealing some of the most secret information that the U.S. government possesses. As Politico notes, this prize is “certain to be interpreted as a vindication of the former government contractor’s efforts.”

Certainly that’s how Snowden sees it. In a statement typical of his nauseating and entirely unearned self-righteousness—released, it should be noted, from his current exile as an honored guest of Vladimir Putin’s police state—Snowden said: “Today’s decision is a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government. We owe it to the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation, including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws, and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop what the world now recognizes was work of vital public importance.”

Funny, if you didn’t know the context, you might think that Snowden is praising the efforts of dissidents in Russia who face jail terms or even death if they dare to tell the truth about how Putin represses dissent and mobilizes the public behind his dictatorial and expansionist agenda. But, no, of course Snowden wouldn’t dare to bite the hand that feeds him–even if that hand belongs to an increasingly repressive regime which labels as “traitor” anyone who dares question any aspect of the Kremlin’s agenda .

In reality, Snowden is heaping eye-rolling praise on his own efforts, and those of his journalistic collaborators, to cripple the legitimate and lawful intelligence gathering efforts of the NSA. The public, it goes without saying, had a role in government long before Edward Snowden came along. The public’s role in the U.S. government actually goes back to our Founding and has remained robust ever since. The public even has an important role in oversight of the intelligence community—a role assigned by our political system to Congress’s intelligence committees and the intelligence community’s in-house inspectors-general, not to twentysomething contractors with extreme an libertarian ideology and a messiah complex. 

For all his self-preening, Snowden did not actually disclose any activity by the NSA that was illegal or unauthorized; what he disclosed was wide-ranging collection efforts that had ample safeguards built in to prevent abuse. There is still no evidence that any of the intelligence-gathering activities of the NSA were directed for personal or political gain. 

Rather, these efforts have helped to keep the country safe from follow-on 9/11 attacks and other threats to our security. Now this important line of defense has been compromised, perhaps fatally, by Snowden’s illegal and unethical disclosures, most of which have focused not on intelligence gathering at home (which is admittedly controversial) but on intelligence gathering abroad in countries that regularly spy on the U.S. too—and which should not remotely be a cause for controversy unless you subscribe to Henry Stimson’s naïve and outdated conviction that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”

There is nothing remotely brave about publishing the most sensitive secrets of the U.S. government—an activity that is arguably protected by the First Amendment and that is unlikely ever to be prosecuted by a U.S. government which is rightly respectful of journalists’ rights. Nor is there anything remotely brave about disclosing those same secrets and then fleeing to exile in Russia rather than facing the consequences in a U.S. court. The word to describe such activities is not “brave” but, rather, “reprehensible.” And that is what the Pulitzer committee is rewarding.

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The Disturbing Pollard Debate

The decision of Secretary of State John Kerry to inject the question of Jonathan Pollard into his quest to keep Middle East peace negotiations alive was a complete and total fiasco. As I noted earlier today, not only was it a futile “Hail Mary” pass that was contemptuously torpedoed by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, even if both the PA and Israel had agreed to the terms of the proposed deal—which would have required Israel to free another batch of terrorist murderers and several hundred other security prisoners—it would have only meant continued negotiations with little hope that they will lead to an actual agreement.

The collapse of this effort is a great disappointment to those who have worked for Pollard’s release and a relief to those who want him to rot in jail. But the most disturbing element of this incident is not so much the latest proof of Kerry’s foolishness as it is the way that the discussion over Pollard has brought back to the surface the myths and misinformation about the case that come to the fore every time his name is in the news. Though advocates for his release are right to view Pollard’s sentence as excessive, much of what we have been hearing about him this week demonstrates anew the extent of the damage that he and his handlers did to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

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The decision of Secretary of State John Kerry to inject the question of Jonathan Pollard into his quest to keep Middle East peace negotiations alive was a complete and total fiasco. As I noted earlier today, not only was it a futile “Hail Mary” pass that was contemptuously torpedoed by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, even if both the PA and Israel had agreed to the terms of the proposed deal—which would have required Israel to free another batch of terrorist murderers and several hundred other security prisoners—it would have only meant continued negotiations with little hope that they will lead to an actual agreement.

The collapse of this effort is a great disappointment to those who have worked for Pollard’s release and a relief to those who want him to rot in jail. But the most disturbing element of this incident is not so much the latest proof of Kerry’s foolishness as it is the way that the discussion over Pollard has brought back to the surface the myths and misinformation about the case that come to the fore every time his name is in the news. Though advocates for his release are right to view Pollard’s sentence as excessive, much of what we have been hearing about him this week demonstrates anew the extent of the damage that he and his handlers did to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

At its heart, the debate about Pollard is about two competing themes. As I wrote in a comprehensive summary of the case three years ago, both Pollard’s defenders and his critics exaggerate their arguments. Though the information Pollard passed to the Israelis was, no doubt, useful to them, the assumption that it was a game-changer in terms of its security is unfounded. So, too, is the notion that the Israelis had a “right” to the information.

By the same token, the comparisons made between Pollard and various Soviet agents are absurd. Pollard was not spying for a hostile power and there is no evidence, nor even a reasonable argument to be made on behalf of the notion that he was in any way responsible for the deaths of U.S. agents in the field. Nor was what he did was in any way comparable to the revelations of Edward Snowden who deliberately sought to undermine U.S. intelligence operations and then fled to the safety of a hostile nation where he continues to thumb his nose at the United States. What he did was bad enough and deserving of severe punishment, but the manner with which the intelligence establishment has demonized him and made his release even after decades in prison and long after any information he might have possessed was relevant is as excessive as it is illogical.

The fact remains no one who ever spied for an ally—something that the U.S. has no scruples about doing itself with regard to Israel or other friendly nations like Germany—has ever received such a harsh sentence. Most such incidents are quickly covered up and forgotten. While Pollard’s espionage was particularly egregious, the life sentence he received violated the plea bargain negotiated with him by the government. The main reason he is still in jail is not so much the desire of the government to keep him locked up but the result of legal errors by his original attorneys that prevented appeals that would have almost certainly been successful in reducing his sentence. After 28 years, many of them in solitary, it cannot be asserted that he has not been punished or that defense of the rule of law depends on his continued incarceration. Since he will be eligible for parole in the fall of 2015, the talk about keeping him in prison forever is just hot air.

Nevertheless, this is an apt moment for both Israelis and Americans who are campaigning for his release to recognize that efforts to portray him as a hero are as damaging as they are misguided. It is legitimate for the Israeli government to seek the release of someone who is being punished for acts committed in the name of their country. But those who succumb to the temptation to treat his actions as anything other than a profoundly misguided operation are dead wrong.

Anyone listening to the debate about Pollard being conducted in the last week must understand that his name is synonymous with charges of dual loyalty against American Jews who serve in both the U.S. government and its armed forces. As I detailed in my 2011 article, the damage that the cynical decision to employ a foolish and unstable person as a spy has done to American Jews and to the vital alliance between the U.S. and Israel is incalculable.

While after serving so much time in prison he is deserving of clemency, I stand by my previous conclusion about what should be the final word about this subject:

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.

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Snowden’s Hypocritical Show

Imagine a prominent foe of Vladimir Putin—someone who had been forced to flee Russia for fear of a jail sentence—appearing via video hookup from abroad to address a large audience in St. Petersburg to deliver withering criticisms of Putin’s attacks on civil liberties. Imagine, moreover, this personage receiving raucous applause from the Russian audience.

Hard to imagine, no? Precisely because there are no civil liberties in Russia, such a spectacle would be unlikely to occur, and if it did, everyone involved would face the danger of jail time.

Yet Edward Snowden has no problem speaking from an undisclosed location in Russian to address the South by Southwest Festival in Austin—and receiving a standing ovation from the audience and softball questions from his ACLU questioners on stage. What’s wrong with this picture?

No one apparently asked Snowden about the obvious hypocrisy involved of defending Internet freedom—with a copy of the Constitution superimposed behind him—even as he enjoys the hospitality of a despot who tramples on every freedom the Founding Fathers held dear. Instead the audience seemed to treat Snowden as if he were just another libertarian professor or writer—rather than one of the most damaging traitors in our country’s long history.

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Imagine a prominent foe of Vladimir Putin—someone who had been forced to flee Russia for fear of a jail sentence—appearing via video hookup from abroad to address a large audience in St. Petersburg to deliver withering criticisms of Putin’s attacks on civil liberties. Imagine, moreover, this personage receiving raucous applause from the Russian audience.

Hard to imagine, no? Precisely because there are no civil liberties in Russia, such a spectacle would be unlikely to occur, and if it did, everyone involved would face the danger of jail time.

Yet Edward Snowden has no problem speaking from an undisclosed location in Russian to address the South by Southwest Festival in Austin—and receiving a standing ovation from the audience and softball questions from his ACLU questioners on stage. What’s wrong with this picture?

No one apparently asked Snowden about the obvious hypocrisy involved of defending Internet freedom—with a copy of the Constitution superimposed behind him—even as he enjoys the hospitality of a despot who tramples on every freedom the Founding Fathers held dear. Instead the audience seemed to treat Snowden as if he were just another libertarian professor or writer—rather than one of the most damaging traitors in our country’s long history.

Too bad none of Snowden’s questioners had the wit or courage to ask him what he thinks about Internet controls in Russia or Putin’s power grab in Crimea. The answer would expose him either as a craven lackey of a dictator or leave him in danger of being booted out of his gilded exile.

It is hard to know what is more revolting: Snowden’s hubris in delivering his self-righteous lecture or his audience’s gullibility in according him oracular status that he earned by doing dire damage to the government which protects them, and the rest of us, from threats like al-Qaeda and, for that matter, Vladimir Putin.

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The NSA and a “Full Public Accounting”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Was the Point of Obama’s NSA Speech?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All NSA News Fit to Print?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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