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History Repeating Itself

Matt Bors
© Matt Bors

Whether you believe Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor, the whole situation is rife with irony and hypocrisy. As the New York Times points out, it is like an intriguing spy novel come to life, with plot twists aplenty.

Like, the NSA wants us to trust that they won’t do anything nefarious with our secrets and private information, yet they hire a high-school dropout who has a pole-dancing girlfriend and give him free access. He’s even able to leave the country with laptops brimming with secrets; managing to evade our security apparatus, and end up in places like China and Russia with everything. If an intensely publicly watched person like Snowden can abscond with our secrets, why would we trust the NSA with any of our confidential information? Doesn’t it seem obvious that our national enemies and competitors probably have better access than do Congressmen with high security clearances?

I mean, it would not surprise me to learn that Al Qaeda has several moles embedded in every one of our security agencies. How could they not?

Then there is the issue of how our government mishandled the whole situation. Did they really believe that China would extradite Snowden to the US? Or that Russia would? Instead, our leaders are now reduced to calling Snowden names, like “defector”, “traitor”, and “spy” (seriously?). By treating someone who is obviously a whistle blower as a traitor, we have pushed him to become a traitor. And we look like bumbling idiots who make a mockery of the term “intelligence”.



  1. Michael wrote:

    “Doesn’t it seem obvious that our national enemies and competitors probably have better access than do Congressmen with high security clearances? I mean, it would not surprise me to learn that Al Qaeda has several moles embedded in every one of our security agencies. How could they not?”

    That’s a bit hyperbolic, don’t you think? Tossing Al Qaeda’s “several moles” into the mix reminded me of Bruce Schneier’s essay, “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot.” (Actually, it reminded me of his whole body of work, as well as others, on terrorism–which emphasizes the fact that the idea that Al Qaeda and other terrorists are genius masterminds is a myth.) Are there problems with the FBI’s background check process? Clearly. But I would say it is significant overstatement to suggest our enemies have “better access.”

    As for the comic, comparing PRISM with COINTELPRO is a pretty big stretch. The former is a lawful (I’m not arguing the merits of the law here, that’s a different point) program that is being conducted with approval and oversight of the FISA court, ostensibly to save lives by thwarting terrorist attacks. Whether or not the oversight is sufficient, the techniques are appropriate/effective, the program is ethical, etc., are tangential questions. (I would argue that the answer is “no” in all three cases.) COINTELPRO was a completely different beast. It was very illegal and its sole purpose was to disrupt political speech by discrediting the leaders. It was explicitly about undermining First Amendment rights. Edward Snowden is not MLK. Prior to this incident, Snowden was doing absolutely nothing that would make him a target for being discredited. MLK was a target of COINTELPRO. Snowden was not a target of PRISM. The comparison is inapt.

    One part of this debate that I find interesting is the distinction between whistleblowing (the exposure of illegal activities) and leaking (the unauthorized disclosure of secrets). I don’t find Snowden to be a whistleblower. That title goes to people like William Binney, Mark Klein, and Thomas Drake, who exposed the warrantless wiretapping program. It was illegal. The NSA was conducting surveillance without FISA approval and oversight. This was illegal. PRISM is simply the result of making that program legal (thanks to the FISA amendments in 2008). It relaxed the requirements for conducting surveillance, thereby giving NSA a rubber stamp and the appearance of oversight.

    Did Snowden expose illegal activities? Did his leak reveal some new, terrible program? No and no. PRISM is, from all appearances, a program designed in accordance with the law. It is not new. When the warrantless wiretapping program was exposed in 2007, we screamed and screamed that there was no oversight. So the FISA amendments added a thin layer of oversight and the discussion died. Snowden just revealed that the NSA and FISA court are doing exactly what they said they would and what the law allows. Sure, he’s done a service to the American public by bringing this issue to light again, but I just don’t think his disclosures about PRISM live up to the hype.

    In the end, PRISM is not the problem. FISA is, and we should not have been content with the 2008 amendments.

    Where the Snowden saga gets troubling to me is the question of the other data he has in his possession. We don’t yet know what that data is. While he first went to Hong Kong, he’s now in Russia which is not exactly a utopia for human rights. And whether he wanted to or not, he’s most likely going to be forking all that data over to Putin. While I think the accusations of treason are overkill, he may turn out to be an accidental traitor.

    Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  2. Hassan wrote:

    Michael, are you same Michael on this comment?:

    Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  3. Michael wrote:


    Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  4. Hassan wrote:

    So you show your true colors as well. Thanks.

    Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  5. PatriotSGT wrote:

    Great points Michael!
    There is another practical point to be gathered from this in that Snowden was a work at home guy so it was relatively easy for him to walk away with said secret data. Perhaps with these super secret programs we need to revise what data can be “worked” from home and which needs to be handled at the workplace. I know with my clearance the classified data I handle has a long list of rules, safeguards, safes, and forms that need to be filled out just to look at it let alone take it anywhere. Perhaps our congress criters can revisit these programs and laws and ensure classified data is being handled like classified data “by law” should.

    Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  6. Michael wrote:

    Based on your previous posts, Hassan, I take it that you are accusing me of hypocrisy for not worshipping at the altar of Snowden and condemning Obama. Can you seriously just not read? Here let me put it in simpler terms for you:

    COINTELPRO — bad and illegal
    Warrantless wiretapping — bad and illegal
    PRISM — bad but legal
    FISA amendments — very bad and the real source of the PRISM problem
    Snowden — naive and self-aggrandizing, neither hero nor traitor, not really a whistleblower because we already knew about PRISM (at least its earlier forms), useful for bringing this topic back to the spotlight
    Bush — disastrous in terms of both economic and foreign policy
    Cheney — traitor (Valerie Plame, anyone?) and architect of the most immoral U.S. foreign policy decisions of my life
    Obama — mixed bag…better for economic policy than his predecessor but caves too easily (also allowed the old boys’ club to push out people like Romer), horrible for prosecution of whistleblowers/leakers, horrible for escalation of drone strikes, ineffective at using the bully pulpit to close Gitmo, etc., wise for the way he handled Libya and most of the Arab Spring, slow and stupid for failure to push for international intervention in Syria
    Large-scale data mining as anti-terrorism technique — ineffective, invasive, and problematic; ripe for abuse and secondary usage

    If you’re trying to accuse me of blaming Bush for Obama’s policies, it’s off the mark. I’m blaming Congress for the FISA amendments that gave PRISM its thin veneer of legality. I’m blaming the American people for continually electing these nitwits. Just because I’m treating Snowden with a dose of skepticism rather than getting all up in arms is nothing about me showing my “true colors.” I’ve seen a number of articles from a variety of sources that give me reason to cast some doubt on Snowden’s claims before jumping to conclusions. Until we know more about that other data that he has, the jury is still out on him.

    And as I said before, I’ve wasted a lot of time and energy in the past decade and a half, and I’ve got nothing to show for it. You know…if you spent more time making substantive points than accusing us all of hypocrisy, you might actually convince some of us to become motivated again and take up sides with you. Until then, I’ve got better things to do.

    Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  7. Patricia wrote:

    Interesting points IK — don’t think it deserved the above firestorm —

    Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  8. Hassan wrote:

    Thanks Michael. I will try to identify allies before working with them. It is very very difficult to find people to work with.

    Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink
  9. PO8 wrote:

    Michael, I don’t know if PRISM is legal, and I think it’s difficult for anyone in the general public to determine this. It is my understanding that some of the relevant law is secret. The FISA “court” and its actions are largely secret. Legislation aside, I am pretty sure that the Fourth Amendment is sufficient to make PRISM illegal on its face (“particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized”), but I have no idea how to get redress of grievance under “our” government as it is currently constituted. In short, the phrase “veneer of legality” you used earlier seems to me to be a pretty accurate description of the situation. What’s under that veneer? Who can tell?

    I’m not terribly interested in whether Snowden is best characterized as a “whistleblower”, a “leaker”, or something else. He seems to be a man who acted strongly against self-interest for what both he and I believe was the good of our nation. As far as I can tell, the facts he exposed are pretty essential to any intelligence participation of our citizens in our “democratic” form of governance, and there was much material new to me (for example, the extent of cooperation of central network players like Google and the phone companies). While you allude to some of Snowden’s facts being questionable, as far as I know our government has already admitted to the largest part of the substance of his allegations (and I am unlikely to trust them on the rest under the circumstances). In short, I’m willing to go as far as “hero” in Snowden’s case, whatever else you want to call him. Just out of curiosity, what “self-aggrandizement” did you have in mind?

    At any rate, if all he accomplished was to bring out the unbelievably high level of cynical hypocrisy of Barack Obama, I think we would owe Snowden a huge debt. I know of no one who voted for Obama the first time who had the slightest idea that he would soon shamelessly advocate for by far the most invasive and extensive program of surveillance of US citizens in our nation’s history. As far as I’m concerned, the terrorists have already won, and Obama gets at least as much credit as Reagan, Bush Sr., or Bush Jr. / Cheney.

    At the Oregon level, our Democratic Congressfolk appear to be good people who have been on the right side of this conversation from the beginning. At the national level, it will likely be quite a while before I offer any kind of support to a Democrat again. Let them and the Republicans wind each other up on someone else’s dime and someone else’s time: they’re all owned by the same faceless billionaires and MNCs anyhow. Hey, look, a puppet show!

    Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 12:46 am | Permalink
  10. Thatguy wrote:

    It has seemed odd that Snowden would make very grandiose statements about wanting to stop the US from being a surveillance state, while quickly jetting off to police states with US intelligence materials. A quick browse of his Wikipedia page suggests he has a pretty high opinion of himself. Yet as earlier posts on this blog suggested, I think accurately, none of what he leaked is that much of a surprise.

    Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 6:14 am | Permalink
  11. Michael wrote:

    Hopefully this won’t get flagged as spam for all the links, but here are a few things I’ve been reading and/or referring to:

    On the charge of naivete and self-aggrandizement: There are a few statements in this profile that stuck out. There’s a lot of lofty talk about Internet freedoms and “the greatest danger to our freedom and way of life,” the claim that the U.S. intelligence community “will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure” (so why isn’t Bradley Manning dead?), the adoption of “Verax” as a code name, and the statement, “I’ve been a spy for almost all of my adult life — I don’t like being in the spotlight.” Taken with other statements he’s made about joining Booz Allen just to leak documents and his claims of being a “computer wizard” at the age of 23, I get the strong image of a post-adolescent idealist yearning for celebrity status.

    He also stated that he has “no desire to provide raw source material to a foreign government.” And yet he flew to Hong Kong (yes, I know there is a huge difference between Hong Kong and mainland PRC, but the PRC government can still exert power there) then to Russia, two places which have been known to detain people while duplicating their hard drives. As stated here, “by the time the Russians are finished sifting through his laptops, he’ll be their spy, whether or not he meant to be. Beijing may have already pulled the same trick; some intelligence officers believe that Chinese spy agencies copied Mr. Snowden’s hard drives during his Hong Kong stay.” If it was truly about the leaks and not his fame, he would have had Greenwald hold the story until he was safely harbored or remained anonymous.

    On the Obama administration’s policy, that previous NY Times article also had this great quote, “We have treated a whistle-blower like a traitor–and thus made him a traitor.” This article also makes a strong case that the Obama administrations stance on leaks (“leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States”) is deplorable. Similarly, while I think that Bradley Manning also went too far in his disclosures (see next point), his detainment has been an atrocity.

    Regarding the whole whistleblower vs. leaker (and hero vs. traitor) discussion, I will defer here to this interview with undeniable whistleblowers Drake, Binney, and Wiebe. “Binney: 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… 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… [T]hat’s not a public service, and now he is going a little beyond public service. So he is transitioning from whistle-blower to a traitor. [emph. added]” Snowden’s revelations of espionage against the Chinese are like Manning’s diplomatic cable leak and the Afghan War documents. They are not intended to expose wrong-doing. Their intent is to publicly humiliate the U.S. government internationally. While mostly just an embarrassment, they actively undermine the main purpose of the NSA and reveal military secrets to true international enemies.

    …which brings us to the NSA and the discussion of legitimate surveillance. This article is probably my favorite of the bunch, because it reflects the nuanced view that I am trying to take. I particularly like this quote: “[O]ne can make the case that there is a public interest in knowing that the US is collecting reams of phone records, but where is the public interest…in leaking a presidential directive on cyber operations or leaking that the US is spying on the Russian president? The latter is both not a crime it’s actually what the NSA was established to do! [bold added]

    Let me state this explicitly: My objections to NSA surveillance has to do with invading the privacy of U.S. persons and non-U.S. civilians. When it comes to foreign governments, I say snoop away! While I do not currently feel there is an imminent threat of war (other than ones we seem to initiate against small countries with oil), I know the world is not a perfectly safe place. I very much want my government to be actively investigating other parts of the world. I would like them to have the intelligence to know when and how to provide aid to Syrian rebels. I would like them to know what the Chinese government is doing to support the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. I would like them to know what involvement the Russian government has in abetting organized cyber-crime and in covering up the assassinations of reporters. Snowden’s leaks have just given China and Russia carte blanche to play the victim, while there is significant evidence that those countries’ actions are far worse.

    Since I’ve rambled on long enough, here are a few more quick ones: Good article questioning why Greenwald and WaPo said nothing about the NSA’s minimization policies (e.g., not detaining attorney-client communications, mandatory destruction of inadvertent collections of American data). (He even compares Greenwald to Breitbart. Ouch!) Interesting piece on the possibility of a democratic surveillance state and what it would look like. Addressing the 800-lb. gorilla in the room, why are we letting private for-profit contractors run our national security complex? And last, but certainly not least, shouldn’t the real discussion be on our irrational overreaction to terrorism? PRISM and FISA are just symptoms of a bigger problem.

    Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  12. Michael wrote:

    IK, apparnelty I’ve just decided to take over your blog as my own personal soap-box.

    Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  13. Thatguy wrote:

    Well said and we’ll sourced, Michael.

    Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 10:02 pm | Permalink
  14. Thatguy wrote:

    Darn phone. That’s well sourced.

    Friday, June 28, 2013 at 6:26 am | Permalink
  15. Julian Hayward, 38, a wealthy Australian businessman with a passion for flight, bid $100,000 for the privilege of sitting in seat 1A, one of a dozen luxurious private suites that make up the firstclass section.

    Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink