Controversy continues to follow Edward Snowden around, with the American people nearly evenly divided on whether he is a hero or a traitor even as the Obama Administration and Congressional leaders insist that he is a criminal and there will be no clemency for him. It should be no surprise to anyone that the debate has also been hot and heavy within the community of former intelligence officers, though it is shaped somewhat differently, being seen as two separate and distinct issues consisting of domestic spying versus overseas spying. My own feelings are also mixed, seeing in Snowden a true whistleblower in his exposure of what the NSA has been doing against the citizens of the United States while having reservations over some of his other revelations and even his behavior. Interestingly, nearly everyone I know who was an actual intelligence officer working either for the military or CIA also more-or-less shares the view that there are two Snowdens that together raise some extremely serious questions about US government behavior that are only thematically connected through Snowden himself.
The preferred narrative for most intelligence officers goes something like this: the initial Snowden revelations made clear that the United States government has been secretly collecting great masses of what was once regarded as private information on Americans. Such action should be condemned and stopped immediately as it is a violation of Article Four of the Constitution, which prohibits searches without probable cause. It has also been demonstrated that NSA regularly failed to comply with the minimal oversight that it was subject to. As a country that secretly spies on its own people is little more than a police state the Snowden who revealed that government activity was a hero.
But now that Snowden’s associates have begun to release masses of material dealing with overseas spying on foreigners, the story becomes a bit more unsettling for many of us who spent long years working in the national security establishment. The US has intelligence agencies that were created in the wake of the Second World War to spy on foreigners and spying on foreigners serves a number of interests, not least of which is to forestall or prevent a surprise or terrorist attack on the United States. It is easy to forget that spying is illegal everywhere in the world for those who are on the receiving end and that spies who work out of embassies are regularly caught and most often quietly sent home. But nearly every government has a spy agency because it is believed that in inter-country relations there are always secrets that would be in the national interest to learn to obtain a competitive advantage and to prevent surprises. That does not mean willy-nilly spying on everyone all the time as has been the recent practice in the US, but it does mean that intelligence gathering is not something that should be lightly discarded as a legitimate foreign policy tool by any nation state. It can and sometimes does serve a purpose in a world that is full of both threats and challenges.
Many readers of antiwar probably believe it would be best to dismantle both the CIA and NSA for the very reason that largely unaccountable organizations answering only to the chief executive should not wield such power in a democracy lest the democracy itself be subverted. The point is well taken and finds strong support in recent developments, but I would argue that both organizations should instead be made much smaller, have less operational autonomy and more independent oversight, and be placed under adult supervision with professional managers who are not beholden to the president for their status. I would also note that the CIA and NSA promotion systems, which are heavily weighted in favor of officers who "do something" should instead begin to punish those who initiate operations that are either illegal or toxic. That’s called accountability.
If you share the belief of most Americans that spying is not intrinsically wrong as a carefully managed component of national security, it is necessary to consider the damage that Snowden might be doing collaterally to the ability of Washington to conduct espionage at all. And that’s precisely where the problem with Snowden comes in for me and many of my peers. Snowden stole tens of thousands of classified documents from the US government, many of which were collected by him in bulk without any possible review of what he was obtaining. He was making the judgment on what to take and what to leave without much discrimination, though he admittedly did do the right thing when he specifically took material that he knew to be related to the massive domestic spying operation. If he had only selected documents intended to demonstrate his claim that the government is engaging in activity that could plausibly be described as illegal he would be a whistleblower and would deserve the thanks of the American people, but he went far beyond that.
It has been argued that Snowden had little choice but to steal documents en masse and go through easily identifiable sympathetic media contacts to expose the government activity, an assertion that is almost certainly true. Certainly, his options were limited. Diane Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, claims that Snowden could have come to her and the committee would have investigated his complaints. That is a lie and Feinstein knows very well that she is lying. As a loyal Democrat out to protect the President she is keen to demonstrate that the intelligence oversight system actually has safeguards in it and works responsibly even when it doesn’t. If Feinstein and the President actually knew about the domestic surveillance programs and let them proceed then the good Senator would have added incentive to pretend that the system she oversees has actual constitutional checks and balances in place in order to protect her own reputation. But it is now clear that congressional oversight consisted more of a rubber stamp than any serious effort to protect the rights of Americans.
So Snowden was right to be concerned about what would happen to him. Every whistleblower that I can recall at FBI, CIA, or NSA has been summarily fired and threatened with prosecution when they voiced their complaints about official malfeasance, which should not surprise anyone as the government’s first priority will always be to protect itself. Snowden would have gotten absolutely nowhere if he had attempted to "go through channels" in any attempt to resolve the violations of law that he observed and was right to go public, but that is where the acceptance of his actions by me and my former colleagues pretty much ends. The vast quantity of intelligence relating to overseas operations that he also stole, which is now being revealed piecemeal, should not have been part of his agenda because government intelligence operations carried out overseas are not illegal in the United States. To reveal those secrets lacking any context to a British newspaper constitutes a political statement and stretches the whistleblower concept to its breaking point. While such revelations have the potential to provide some titillating news stories they also gravely damage liaison relationships and impede Washington’s ability to conduct espionage, which could have serious consequences down the road.
To be sure, tapping the cellphone of the Chancellor of Germany is a completely stupid operation that should never have been attempted if one considers the likely gain from it versus the possible risk of exposure. But that is a problem with how intelligence collection is prioritized and managed in post 9/11 America where everything is up for grabs rather than with the desirability of conducting espionage per se. It has been argued by some observers that Snowden might have taken the overseas intelligence information so he could release it gradually and keep his story of Washington’s malfeasance alive. If that is true it is a foolish reason, as misguided as tapping Angela Merkel’s phone, a random act which punishes the system in an unfocused way and which has already and will continue to produce unintended consequences.
When one of my former colleagues was asked what he would have done if he had been Snowden he replied that he would have collected everything he could on illegal domestic spying, would have passed it to a highly trusted international journalist or lawyer with good access to place the material, and then would have proceeded directly to Washington to sit on the steps of the Supreme Court with a sign around his neck while he waited to be arrested. Instead, Snowden took many documents that were not supportive of his agenda and then fled to China and afterwards to Russia, both countries that are not enemies but are at a minimum competitors, making him vulnerable to charges that he was in active collusion with opponents of the United States. Because he did not wish to face the consequences of his action while much of the stolen material is background noise unsupportive of his central thesis regarding domestic spying, it is indisputable that Snowden willfully violated the Espionage Act in stealing information that he had sworn to protect and has to be regarded as a criminal even if his intentions were good. That is true whether one supports him or not and whether or not he provided a genuine service by revealing the NSA spying. And he has also discredited the entire intelligence process, which, depending on one’s perspective, might very well be his most enduring legacy.