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“A Self Styled Decider”: Edward Snowden Got Everything Wrong

Edward Snowden is now out of his limbo at Moscow’s airport, presumably ensconced in some Russian dacha, wondering what the next phase of his young life will bring. Having spent 30 years in the intelligence business, I fervently hope the food is lousy, the winter is cold, and the Internet access is awful. But I worry less about what happens to this one man and more about the damage Snowden has done — and could still do — to America’s long-term ability to strike the right balance between privacy and security.

Ever since Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, leaked top-secret material about its surveillance programs, he and the U.S. government have locked horns about the nature of those programs.

But those following the Snowden saga should understand two key points. First, though many things need to be kept secret in today’s dangerous world, the line between “secret” and “not secret” is fuzzy rather than stark, and if the goal is security, the harsh truth is that we should often err toward more secrets rather than fewer. Second, despite the grumbling from Snowden and his admirers, the U.S. government truly does make strenuous efforts not to violate privacy, not just because it respects privacy (which it does), but because it simply doesn’t have the time to read irrelevant emails or listen in on conversations unconnected to possible plots against American civilians.

Incidents like the Snowden affair put my former colleagues in the intelligence community in an impossible position. Yes, the official explanations about the virtues of data-collection efforts can sound self-justifying and vague. But they’re still right. I know firsthand that Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, is telling the truth when he talks about plots that have been preempted and attacks that have been foiled because of intelligence his agency collected. I know because I was on the inside, I have long held security clearances, and I participated in many of the activities he describes.

I spent years in the middle of the effort to identify, disentangle, and ultimately attack Al Qaeda. We didn’t operate in secrecy because we were ashamed. We operated in the dark because we had to. Al Qaeda and its affiliates study our actions. They learn from our mistakes. America is safer because we’ve made a point of understanding their methods better than they understand ours.

I understand the trade-offs here. But the intelligence community isn’t keeping things from the American people because we don’t trust them, but rather because once important security information is out there, anyone can access it, including those who would do us harm.

That’s why I find the Snowden controversy so frustrating. I realize many Americans don’t trust their government. I wish I could change that. I wish I could tell people the amazing things I witnessed during my 30 years in the CIA, that I’ve never seen people work harder or more selflessly, that for little money and long hours, people took it for granted that their flaws would be scrutinized and their successes ignored. But I’ve been around long enough to know that deep-rooted distrust of government is immune to stories from people like me. The conspiracy buffs are too busy howling in protest at the thought that their government could uncover how long they spent on the phone with their dear aunt.

Let me break this to you gently. The government is not interested in your conversations with your aunt, unless, of course, she is a key terrorist leader. More than 100 billion emails were sent every day last year — 100 billion, every day. In that vast mass of data lurk a few bits that are of urgent interest and vast terabytes of tedium that are not. Unfortunately, the metadata (the phone numbers, length of contact, and so forth, but not the content of the conversations) that sketch the contours of a call to your family member may fall into the same enormous bucket of information that includes information on the next terrorist threat. As Jeremy Bash, the former chief of staff of the CIA, memorably put it, “If you’re looking for a needle in the haystack, you need a haystack.”

Unfortunately, during the Snowden affair, many news outlets have spent more time examining ways the government could abuse the information it has access to while giving scant mention to the lengths to which the intelligence community goes to protect privacy. We have spent enormous amounts of time and effort figuring out how to disaggregate the important specks from the overwhelming bulk of irrelevant data.

This is done under tight and well-thought-out strictures. I witnessed firsthand the consequences of breaking the privacy rules of my former organization, the National Counterterrorism Center. As the center’s deputy director, I had to fire people, good people, and remove others from their posts for failing to follow the rules about how information could be accessed and used. It didn’t happen often, and it was never a malicious attempt to gather private information. We had mandatory training and full-time staffers to supervise privacy regulations. We used precious resources to hire lawyers and civil liberties experts to oversee our efforts. And on those few occasions when we made mistakes, the punishments were swift and harsh.

Yes, some things that are classified probably don’t need to be. That may undermine public trust and dilute our ability to protect the data that really need protecting. But some things — especially U.S. sources and methods — must be kept secret. Snowden didn’t offer fresh insight about a massive policy failure. Rather, he took upon himself the authority to decide what tradecraft the intelligence community needs to keep his fellow citizens safe. Sadly, Snowden has captured the public’s imagination and attention, and the government’s reaction now seems too little, too late and too reactive. But the intelligence community — always a less sympathetic protagonist than a self-styled whistle-blower — actually has a good story to tell about how seriously the government takes privacy issues. We should tell it.

 

By: Andrew Liepman, Senior analyst at Rand Corp., was a career CIA officer; Former Deputy Director of the National Counterterrorism Center: Op-Ed Columnist, The Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2013

August 12, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“I Love The Russian People”: Edward Snowden Savors The Taste Of Liberty In Russia

Sweet freedom, at last!

I thought I’d never get out of that crummy terminal. After a month of gagging on Cinnabon fumes, even this sooty Moscow air smells like daisies.

Today I walk the streets a free man, accompanied by my two new best friends, Anatoly and Boris. They do NOT work for the KGB, OK? They’re professional tour guides who came strongly recommended by President Vladimir Putin.

By the way, Vlad (that’s what he told me to call him) has been a totally righteous dude about this whole fugitive-spy thing, unlike a certain uncool American president, who keeps trying to have me arrested and prosecuted for espionage.

The Russians have generously given me a Wi-Fi chip and free Internet, so I can go online anytime I want and see what the world is saying about me. A recurring theme in many blogs and chat rooms seems to be: What was that kid thinking?

First of all, I believe with all my heart that Americans have the right to know about the far-reaching surveillance tactics employed by our government to monitor its own citizens. I also believe I’ve restarted an important debate about national security and privacy.

Could I have handled this whole thing differently? Sure. In retrospect, there’s definitely something to be said for anonymity.

But, hey, cut me some slack. I’m only 29 and this was my first time leaking classified intelligence data.

I’ll be the first to admit that my plan wasn’t 100 percent seamless. For example, I should have figured out what new place I wanted to live in before I revealed my identity as the leaker. Clearly, I underestimated how difficult it would be to find a country that would welcome me, especially a country as free and open as the United States.

“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” I declared in a video interview.

This was weeks after I’d left my place in Hawaii and flown to Hong Kong to meet secretly with reporters. The hotel was nice, but after the stories broke I couldn’t go out anywhere.

How do you like your accommodations, Mr. Snowden? Can we bring you another pitcher of green tea? More noodles, perhaps?

I found another place to crash in Hong Kong and gave a new interview revealing that the U.S. National Security Agency had hacked government computers in China. I assumed that in gratitude for receiving this heavy-duty info, the Chinese authorities would let me stay as long as I wanted. Wrong.

No problem, Eddie Boy, says some WikiLeaks dude. We’ll get you into Cuba.

Now I was seriously jazzed because Cuba’s supposed to be a lot like Hawaii — sunshine, great beaches, good surf, a chill music scene.

First connection (or so I thought) was at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. There I scored a ticket to Havana on Aeroflot (which is sort of the Russian version of Jet Blue, minus the TVs in the seatbacks), and I’m ready to roll. Load up my iTunes with the Buena Vista Social Club but then . . .

More bad news. Apparently the Cuban regime wasn’t super excited about me moving there. I never really got the whole story. The plane left without me is all I know.

So I was stuck in the Moscow airport’s “transit” area, feeling not-so-great about how this whistleblower stuff is playing out. The security guys wouldn’t even let me into the main terminal to hit a Starbucks and check out the Sharper Image.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama kept bugging the Kremlin to hand me over. Putin basically flipped him off, which bought me some time to scout other destinations that had fewer ice storms.

The Bolivian government has offered me asylum, but I’ve been thinking about what happened down there to Butch Cassidy and Sundance. I might take a pass.

Venezuela also said I could come down, and maybe that’s where I’ll end up in a few months. At least it’s warm there. Ecuador sounds pretty sweet, too.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the Russian people. Anatoly always insists on carrying my laptop for me, and Boris gave me a cell phone with unlimited minutes.

The coverage here is so amazing that somebody usually answers even before I finish dialing!

 

By: Carl Hiaasen, The Miami Herald, August 3, 2013

August 5, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Dead Man’s Switch”: Is Edward Snowden Blackmailing America?

Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who has spent the last several weeks disseminating Edward Snowden’s revelations about National Security Agency eavesdropping practices, caused a stir this weekend with an interview he gave to Argentina’s La Nación.

“Snowden has enough information to cause more damage to the U.S. government in one single minute than any other person has ever had in the history of the United States,” Greenwald told La Nación‘s Alberto Armendariz (my translation). He goes on to talk about how Snowden has to avoid landing in the custody of the “vengeful” U.S. at all costs, how Russia is a good place for him for now, and how Snowden’s objective is letting the world know how the NSA is violating privacy rights. Snowden is not out to destroy the U.S., Greenwald says. If Snowden dies, however, Greenwald adds, watch out:

He has already distributed thousands of documents and made sure that various people around the world have his complete archive. If something happens to him, these documents would be made public. This is his insurance policy. The U.S. government should be on its knees everyday praying that nothing happens to Snowden, because if anything should happen, all the information will be revealed and this would be its worst nightmare. [La Nación, my translation]

In an interview with The Associated Press, Greenwald elaborated on what Snowden is sitting on: “In order to take documents with him that proved that what he was saying was true he had to take ones that included very sensitive, detailed blueprints of how the NSA does what they do.” These documents, Greenwald added, “would allow somebody who read them to know exactly how the NSA does what it does, which would in turn allow them to evade that surveillance or replicate it.”

Greenwald’s interview with La Nación reached the U.S. largely through a Reuters article that reported the quotes in English. Greenwald was annoyed enough by this act of translational journalism that he responded in a blog post at The Guardian:

Like everything in the matter of these NSA leaks, this interview is being wildly distorted to attract attention away from the revelations themselves. It’s particularly being seized on to attack Edward Snowden and, secondarily, me, for supposedly “blackmailing” and “threatening” the US government. That is just absurd. That Snowden has created some sort of “dead man’s switch” — whereby documents get released in the event that he is killed by the US government — was previously reported weeks ago, and Snowden himself has strongly implied much the same thing….

That has nothing to do with me: I don’t have access to those “insurance” documents and have no role in whatever dead man switch he’s arranged. I’m reporting what documents he says he has and what precautions he says he has taken to protect himself from what he perceives to be the threat to his well-being. That’s not a threat. Those are facts…. The only people who would claim any of this was a “threat” or “blackmail” are people with serious problems of reading comprehension or honesty, or both. [Guardian]

That explanation didn’t impress Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, who said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Monday that the comments from Greenwald (or “that reporter”, as he calls him) about the U.S. getting on its knees are “out of line.” Despite the considerable respect he has for The Guardian, Bernstein added, “that’s an awful statement, and the tone in which he made it.”

It’s one thing to say that Mr. Snowden possesses some information that could be harmful, and that could be part of the calculation that everybody makes here. It’s another to make that kind of an aggressive, non-reportorial statement [that] a reporter has no business making. [Bernstein on Morning Joe]

That, too, prompted a response from Greenwald: “I realize Carl Bernstein hasn’t done any actual reporting for a couple decades now, but he should nonetheless take the time to read what he’s opining on.” Reuters gave “a complete distortion of what I actually said,” Greenwald told Politico. “The point I made is the opposite one: That Snowden has been as responsible as a whistleblower can be in ensuring that only information the public should know is revealed.”

Let me get this straight, said Elaine Radford at The Inquisitr. Snowden is sitting on the documents that would cause the worst damage to the U.S. in its entire history, and he’ll unleash them if anything happens to him — nice government there, pity if anything should happen to it — but it’s not blackmail?

First, “considering that the United States wouldn’t go on its knees to Nazis, Nikita Khrushchev, or Osama bin Laden, Greenwald seemed to be expecting a bit much,” Radford said. Second, if he’s trying to make Snowden more sympathetic to Americans, asking America to get on its knees is pretty counterproductive — “most of us think we settled that one sometime around 1776.” But the big point, is “I don’t see how you can take the claim as anything other than a threat of blackmail.”

Like any other reporter, Greenwald is entitled to report what his source has claimed. Greenwald may even have a duty to report it if Snowden is in fact trying to blackmail the United States into dropping its criminal case against him. That in itself seems perilously close to the crime of extortion to me….

The Snowden “worst damage” dead man’s switch threat seems to suggest that Snowden has plans to destroy America by some sort of hacker attack or release of harmful information if he doesn’t get his way. You know, I don’t want to hang a guy because a reporter gave a bad interview. But c’mon. If the Snowden “worst damage” comment actually reflects how Edward Snowden thinks, it’s way past time to stop calling this man any kind of hero. [Inquisitr]

 

By: Peter Weber, Senior Editor, The Week, July 15, 2013

July 16, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“His Own Epitaph”: Edward Snowden, A Man Without A Country

We woke this morning to find that Edward Snowden (Mr. Around the World in Rrrrrrrrrrr! [sound of a screeching stop]) has been offered asylum first in Venezuela, and then in Nicaragua. Perhaps the only person entirely happy about this result may be John Logan, author of the next two James Bond films, who may now be inspired to include a scene of a world-famous leaker meeting an untimely fate at the end of a bejeweled thong on the sun-struck beaches of Playa El Agua.

If Snowden can make his way to the Americas (hardly a given), we may learn the answer to one of the burning questions of the moment: what have you been doing all day, Ed? The possibilities of his treatment at Sheremetyevo airport range from detention-lite to a pleasant sterility, the sort of environment that George Clooney might have appreciated in Up in the Air. After almost two weeks, one might expect Snowden to have cleaned up his email folder, finished everything he’s downloaded to his e-reader, and finally got his fill of Diamond Mine.

Should he be scrounging for something else to read, he could do worse than to locate The Man Without A Country, a short story that was published in The Atlantic in December 1863. Written by Edward Everett Hale, the author and clergyman (and not his uncle Edward Everett, the author and orator, or Edward Everett Horton, the comic actor), The Man Without a Country tells the story of a young Army lieutenant Philip Nolan, who becomes friends with the nefarious Aaron Burr. When Burr is indicted for treason for ham-handedly trying to seize part of the Louisiana Territory for himself, Nolan is tried for treason. During the proceedings, he loses his temper, and renounces America. “I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” he shouts, and the judge sentences Nolan to his wish: he is to spend the rest of his life aboard United States Navy warships, in exile, with no right ever again to set foot on U.S. soil, and with explicit orders that no one shall ever mention his country to him again.

And so it happens. Nolan spends approximately fifty years aboard various vessels, never allowed to return to US soil. No one is allowed to speak to him about the United States, nor is he allowed to read anything about the country. Over the years, he repents his angry comments, and one day advices a young sailor to avoid his mistake: “Remember, boy, that behind all these men … behind officers and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country, and that you belong to her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by her, boy, as you would stand by your mother … !” At the end of the story, a dying Nolan invites an officer named Danforth to his room. It has become a patriotic shrine, with a flag, pictures of George Washington and a bald eagle. Danforth tells Nolan everything that happened to America since his sentence was imposed; the narrator confesses, however, that “I could not make up my mouth to tell him a word about this infernal rebellion,’’—the Civil War. When Nolan is found dead later that day, they find that he has written his own epitaph:

In memory of PHILIP NOLAN, Lieutenant in the army of the United States. He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands

Treacly stuff, in a way, yet quite moving in its sentimental power. The story was a Civil War story, designed to use sentiment and argument to show what the country as a whole, as opposed to the individual states, had achieved. I’d love to hear what Snowden thinks of the tale a few years from now, although generally speaking, those who possess the audacity to commit a great deed seldom have the audacity to reconsider it.

 

By: Jamie Malanowski, Washington Monthly Political Animal, July 6, 2013

July 7, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Edward Snowden, Devious And Calculating”: How Can I Forget You If You Don’t Go Away?

Throughout the NSA/Snowden saga, critics of the government’s surveillance programs have often accused defenders of these programs of focusing on the motives of Snowden himself (or of the journalists who have publicized his revelations) rather than what he has revealed.

That’s a fair and important point. But we are fast approaching the time where this complaint should be addressed more to Snowden than to his enemies.

As McClatchey’s Hannah Allam aptly notes, Snowden’s serial self-revelations (and his actual and potential travel itineraries) have kept the spotlight on him in ways that have undermined his credibility:

Even as Snowden is stuck in the transit lounge of a Moscow airport, his public image is constantly evolving, through the publication of his Internet chat logs, statements from his father, live online conversations and an interview he gave to a Chinese newspaper.

Snowden undoubtedly remains a polarizing figure, but both his supporters and detractors have received some curveballs as details of his life are revealed and in many ways eclipse the trove of government secrets he risked everything to expose.

Most unsettling in terms of his initial reputation as a man driven to whistle-blowing by the enormity of what he was asked to do by his superiors has evolving doubts about when he began gathering the information he is disclosing:

While pro-transparency activists were quick to bestow Snowden with the title of “whistleblower,” that might be a stretch given some of his admissions to a Chinese newspaper. While in transit in Hong Kong, Snowden told the South China Morning Post, an English-language publication, that he’d staked out a job as a contractor at the firm of Booz Allen Hamilton in order to gain “access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked,” the Morning Post quoted him as saying. The interview, said Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy, “did not strengthen his case. It made him look devious and calculating rather than conscience-driven.”

One might add that it made him look more like a spy than a whistle-blower, an impression that is strengthened by his semi-public negotiations for asylum with various countries hostile to his own. It’s hard not to observe that had Snowden put as much time and effort into disappearing as he did into preparing the rollout of his revelations, we might be far more focused on NSA than on him.

I keep half-expecting to see protesters of this or that government here or abroad begin replacing their Guy Fawkes’ masks with the visage of Edward Snowden. But in terms of converting his leaks into an effective lever to bring more transparency and accountability to NSA and other purveyors of questionable U.S. policies and practices, I don’t think a Snowden cult of personality is going to be terribly helpful.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, July 1, 2013

July 3, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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