Like most spooks, past and present, we've been watching the NSA affair with a great deal of interest--and more than a little concern.
Readers will note that we didn't refer to the agency's mass acquisition of personal information (on millions of Americans) as a "crisis." After all, political leaders of every stripe have assured us that accessing your phone records and the data-mining of your internet activities is a necessary tool in the war on terror. In fact, this may be the only time in recent history that President Obama; Senator Diane Feinstein, Senator John McCain, and Congressman Mike Rogers have agreed on something. Their logic goes something like this: in the battle against unseen enemies, with the ability to inflict mass chaos and casualties with no warning, it's sometimes necessary to surrender a bit of your privacy, in exchange for "security." Hold that thought; we'll get back to it in a minute.
Of course, we would have never learned the extent of the NSA's activities without the "efforts" of one Edward Snowden, a high school drop-out who subsequently washed out of Army basic training. Despite a limited education and tissue-thin resume, Mr. Snowden landed a $200,000 a year job as an employee of Booz, Allen, Hamilton, the venerable defense contractor.
Assigned to a post in Hawaii, Mr. Snowden said he quickly learned of the NSA surveillance program and grew concerned. So, one day he took a flash drive to work--in direct violation of security policies--and downloaded a trove of documents describing what the agency was up to. Then, he hopped a plane for Hong Kong, where he shared the information with the UK Guardian. And the rest, as they say, is history, though we're far from the bottom in the NSA imbroglio.
Since the Guardian's first story appeared last month, Snowden has been described as everything from a hero to a traitor. The erst-while whistleblower claims he is not trying to evade authorities, but it's clear that he didn't choose Hong Kong on a whim. Extraditing him from that locale may prove far more difficult than securing his legal return from a place like Canada or Great Britain. Meanwhile, some are suggesting that Snowden may face a more sinister fate, at the hands of a government assassin, or on the receiving end of a drone-fired missile, the current, preferred method for eliminating certain enemies of the state.
While Mr. Snowden isn't exactly a sure bet for old age, his legacy is far more complex. For starters, he clearly violated the non-disclosure agreements he signed upon receipt of his security clearance, and his disclosures have clearly damaged national security. For that, he is deserving of punishment, after a full and fair trial. If Snowden truly wanted whistle-blower status, there is a mechanism for that, the same one followed by William Binney, J. Kirke Wiebe, Thomas Drake and Edward Loomis, all former NSA officials who filed a formal complaint against the agency in 2002, alleging that it wasted "millions and millions of dollars" on Trailblazer, a system designed to analyze communications traffic carried on various networks, including the internet.
For their troubles, each of these individuals lost their security clearances, while Binney and Wiebe were treated to a full-scale FBI raids on their homes in 2007. The whistle-blowers were threatened with criminal prosecution, but those charges later evaporated, though Drake eventually entered a guilty plea to a single misdemeanor count of "exceeding the authorized use of a computer." All paid a steep price for their actions, but they worked within the system. The same cannot be said of Edward Snowden.
In fact, Mr. Binney believes that Snowden may have already crossed the line from whistle-blower to traitor. From the Washington Free Beacon:
Snowden “is transitioning from whistleblower to a traitor” by leaking information on clandestine operations designed to gather intelligence on the Russian and Chinese governments, Binney said.
“That’s not a public service,” he insisted.
Certainly he performed a really great public service to begin with by exposing these programs and making the government in a sense publicly accountable for what they’re doing. At least now they are going to have some kind of open discussion like that.
But now he is starting to talk about things like the government hacking into China and all this kind of thing. He is going a little bit too far. I don’t think he had access to that program. But somebody talked to him about it, and so he said, from what I have read, anyway, he said that somebody, a reliable source, told him that the U.S. government is hacking into all these countries. But that’s not a public service, and now he is going a little beyond public service.
We would argue that Snowden has morphed into full-blown celebrity leaker, following the model of Julian Assange. There will be more media interviews and perhaps even a book or movie deal before the feds find some way to corral Edward Snowden. Looking towards his own future, Snowden should remember that Assange is currently holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, avoiding the threat of extradition to Sweden (on sexual assault charges) if he sets foot outside the diplomatic compound. Meanwhile, the man who supplied many of the documents leaked by Assange (US Army Private Bradley Manning) is facing a long stint at Leavenworth for downloading thousands of classified documents from DoD computer networks, reports that were eventually published at Assange's WikiLeaks website.
Still, even critics concede that Snowden has a point. As Mr. Binney and his fellow whistle-blowers testified, NSA has been collecting data domestically for years, with the willing assistance of telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon. And the program has moved well beyond the "selective" program described by intelligence officials when the agency's warrantless wiretapping program was exposed in 2005.
According to various sources, the NSA has the ability to gather virtually every phone call, e-mail and internet search on the planet, then run them through incredibly fast computer networks, mining the data that helps identify activity patterns. Commercially-available encryption systems still pose a challenge, but NSA is working on that problem, too. At a research center in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, agency scientists and engineers are building super computers capable of running at exaflop speed--that's one million, trillion operations per second. Very useful in performing complex tasks, such as logging and categorizing every phone call dialed in America every day (emphasis ours), or performing brute force calculations required to break advanced encryption systems.
By some accounts, NSA has already achieved an incredible breakthrough in computer speed, creating machines in the 10-20 petaflop range, optimized for code-breaking. Others suggest the agency isn't quite there yet, opining that the new Utah Data Center is being built to store vast amounts of information until the next generation of NSA computers can begin plumbing its voluminous haul.
So why does this matter? In the post 9-11 era, most Americans believe that increased surveillance is a necessity, to prevent future, disastrous attacks on our country. But that begs an obvious question: why does Verizon hand over the phone records for my 90-year-old neighbor, a retired school teacher who spends most of her time gardening? Clearly, she poses no security threat, but her monthly phone logs have been dutifully passed on to Fort Meade, along with those of millions of other Americans who simply signed on with a telecom company for internet or phone service. Her only "crime" was selecting a communications provider who decided to get in bed with the NSA, perhaps in exchange for future, favorable rulings from the FCC and other government regulators.
And what happens to that data? In recent weeks, we've learned that another federal agency, the IRS, shared information from Tea Party groups (and other conservative organizations) with left-wing media organizations, which then published or broadcast the "leaked" data. Clearly, the IRS (and its databases) were utilized to suppress the activities of political groups the government didn't like. What assurances do we have that the mountains of data being collected by NSA--which absolutely dwarf what the IRS has on hand--won't be used for similar, nefarious purposes?
Or for that matter, can we trust the government with information collected (supposedly) for the public good? The same metadata on your personal habits, financial transactions and other activities can be easily gathered by other federal agencies as well. Suppose your credit or debit card activities reveal a pattern of frequenting fast food joints, visiting bars or liquor stores and purchasing cigarettes. Wonder what the Obama death panels would do with that data?
Of course, the feds would tell you that such ideas are far-fetched--even ludicrous. Besides, increased surveillance is necessary to keep us safe (or so we're told). The government also insists that its domestic monitoring has actually foiled "several" terrorist plots; the exact number depends on who you're talking to. That invites an obvious retort: if the program was working so well, why did it fail to detect such obvious threats as Major Nidal Hassan, the Army psychiatrist who was communicating with known Al Qaida terrorists overseas before going on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood?
Or how about the Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the bombings at this year's Boston Marathon. Russian security services provided two separate warnings about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who had just returned from a year in Dagestan, a visit that (reportedly) included visits with Muslim terrorists. If the NSA program is working so well, how did the older sibling escape the NSA dragnet, even with a tip-off from a foreign security service? No intelligence agency is perfect, but the examples of Hassan and the Brothers Tsarnaev offer disturbing counter-points to the "success" of the NSA program.
Edward Snowden deserves to be punished, but the debate he has spurred must also be a part of the public discourse. Wisconsin Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, who will never be confused with an ACLU member, says on-going surveillance activities go "far beyond" what was envisioned in the 2001 Patriot Act, a law that Mr. Sensenbrenner played a key role in crafting. It's time to ask exactly what is being done in our name, and what we've surrendered in our collective yearning for "safety."