Insiders: The Value of Snowden’s Disclosures Was Not Worth National Security Damage

Experts’ views appear to contrast with those of American public.

Demonstrators hold a banner bearing the image of Edward Snowden with a message of thanks during a protest against government surveillance on October 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. The disclosures of widespread surveillance by the US National Security Agency of US allies has caused an international uproar, with leaders in Europe and Latin America demanding an accounting from the United States.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Feb. 6, 2014, 2:43 p.m.

The value of Ed­ward Snowden’s dis­clos­ures about gov­ern­ment spy­ing was not worth the cost to U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity, 80 per­cent of Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Se­cur­ity In­siders said.

Even though pub­lic polls show Amer­ic­ans are in­creas­ingly con­cerned about their pri­vacy — and op­pose the agency’s once-secret col­lec­tion of tele­phone and In­ter­net metadata — Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per said the rev­el­a­tions from the former NSA con­tract­or caused “massive” and “his­tor­ic” dam­age to U.S. se­cur­ity.

The pool of ex­perts over­whelm­ingly say that the en­su­ing pub­lic de­bate over civil liber­ties was not worth the harm to na­tion­al se­cur­ity. “[Snowden] com­prom­ised im­port­ant in­tel­li­gence sources and meth­ods,” one In­sider said, “and ter­ror­ists and for­eign gov­ern­ments have up­dated their trade­craft in re­sponse.”

This has re­duced the gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to stop at­tacks that threaten Amer­ic­ans’ se­cur­ity, the In­sider con­tin­ued. “What have we learned about pro­grams that do im­pact civil liber­ties? That the in­tel­li­gence com­munity has been op­er­at­ing col­lec­tion pro­grams au­thor­ized by all three branches of gov­ern­ment, with ap­prov­al from two pres­id­ents from dif­fer­ent parties, un­der mul­tiple levels of checks and bal­ances, and with no re­cord of sig­ni­fic­antly ab­us­ing its abil­ity to ac­cess in­form­a­tion about the Amer­ic­an people.”

The pub­lic, an­oth­er In­sider said, “will nev­er know the full cost, and there­fore will nev­er be able to truly un­der­stand the dam­age Snowden did. A true ‘Pat­ri­ot,’ which he claims to be, would have giv­en the doc­u­ments to Con­gress and stayed in the U.S. to face the con­sequences. He’s a cow­ard.” Sev­er­al In­siders also chose to in­sult Snowden, call­ing him “a vain­glori­ous trait­or” and “a char­lat­an.”

Some In­siders said they felt con­flic­ted. Snowden’s rev­el­a­tions were be­ne­fi­cial be­cause he “shined a light on an in­trus­ive state that seems to have vi­ol­ated the law and the Con­sti­tu­tion and taken the coun­try in a dan­ger­ous dir­ec­tion,” one In­sider said. But the harm to na­tion­al se­cur­ity was per­haps even great­er, the In­sider ad­ded. “It’s hard to weigh the two without more info on the as­sessed dam­age caused. But one has to as­sume it has been enorm­ous.”

A 20 per­cent minor­ity in­sisted Snowden’s rev­el­a­tions were worth the risk. “We would nev­er have a de­bate on sur­veil­lance without his dis­clos­ures, whistle-blower or not,” one In­sider said. Clap­per over­states the dam­age to na­tion­al se­cur­ity, an­oth­er In­sider as­ser­ted, but that could be fixed now with a more “thought­ful” sur­veil­lance policy.

The doc­u­ments show that the agency was “massively vi­ol­at­ing every cit­izen’s pri­vacy” with its enorm­ous metadata pro­gram, an­oth­er In­sider said. “At the same time, it was grow­ing more and more out of con­trol with neither the White House, the FISA court, nor the Con­gress will­ing to rein it in. When an agency be­gins to go rogue, it in­vites whistle-blowers. And since vir­tu­ally all the in­form­a­tion re­leased has dealt with ab­uses at home or de­ceit with al­lies, and noth­ing on North Korean or oth­er ad­versar­ies, whatever dam­age there was, was min­im­al com­pared to the be­ne­fit.”

If the U.S. gov­ern­ment were to ap­point a Church com­mis­sion-like or­gan­iz­a­tion and change — and the Amer­ic­an people were to de­mand it — Snowden’s leaks would be worth it, one In­sider said. “Without such change, the U.S. has lost our stand­ing to chas­tise the sur­veil­lance of coun­tries like China and Ir­an against their people, and that is a great­er harm than what is be­ing dis­cussed in the me­dia.”

1. Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per said former NSA con­tract­or Ed­ward Snowden caused “massive” and “his­tor­ic” se­cur­ity dam­age. Was the value of his dis­clos­ures worth the po­ten­tial se­cur­ity costs?

  • No    80%
  • Yes   20%


“Oh, my God, no! This is the most de­struct­ive hem­or­rhaging of Amer­ic­an secrets in his­tory, and very few of them had any­thing to do with Amer­ic­an pri­vacy. And NONE of them im­plic­ated un­law­ful activ­ity.”

“Ed­ward Snowden’s dis­clos­ure of pro­grams that have noth­ing to do with Amer­ic­an cit­izens have put the United States in grave per­il. We can only hope a ma­jor crisis does not erupt be­fore the dam­age to our in­tel­li­gence sys­tem is re­paired. The value of the dis­clos­ures is most cer­tainly not worth the po­ten­tial se­cur­ity costs.”

“The main be­ne­fi­ciary of Snowden’s treas­on is the Rus­si­an in­tel­li­gence ser­vice.”

“It is bizarre that any­one could think that people hold­ing se­cur­ity clear­ances should be free to run to the news me­dia every time they dis­agree with a clas­si­fied policy. Whistle-blowers have IGs and con­gres­sion­al over­sight com­mit­tees to which they are free to com­plain when they per­ceive ab­uses, but we might as well ab­ol­ish the no­tion of clas­si­fied in­form­a­tion if Snowden is to be held up as mod­el of good cit­izen­ship.”

“Ab­so­lutely not. And it is silly to think Snowden de­lib­er­ated much on this point, giv­en the quant­ity of what he has re­leased. At the same time, we know that the pro­grams he leaked were ap­proved by the Justice De­part­ment and briefed to Con­gress. We also know that their ex­pos­ure has dam­aged our abil­ity to pre­vent an­oth­er 9/11 or an over­re­ac­tion to events like the Bo­ston bomb­ings. What has happened to good gov­ernance in this case? Al­though groups of ex­perts are now claim­ing in­tel­li­gence over­reached, gov­ern­ment by ‘blue-rib­bon pan­el’ or seri­al leak­er is not demo­cracy. Polit­ic­ally fraught mo­ments, wheth­er triggered by a 9/11 or a no­tori­ous leak­er, tend to cre­ate a kind of lem­mings’ rush to ‘fix’ in­tel­li­gence. But true, safe in­tel­li­gence over­sight re­quires de­lib­er­ate weigh­ing of risks and gains, not a stam­pede. If the bal­ance of risks and gains was wrong be­fore Snowden, blame the elect­or­ate who voted in the over­seers, don’t li­on­ize the leak­er. He hurt us.”

“There is value in hav­ing pri­vacy is­sues ex­amined in the pub­lic square, but it is far ex­ceeded in dam­age to Amer­ica in com­prom­ised in­tel­li­gence sources and meth­ods, harm to the trust in U.S. IT and tele­com com­pan­ies that op­er­ate glob­ally, and in U.S. re­la­tions with Ger­many and oth­er al­lies. None of the rev­el­a­tions has sug­ges­ted that in­tel­li­gence pro­grams op­er­ated con­trary to U.S. law or con­gres­sion­al over­sight.”

“There is a be­ne­fit from the more vig­or­ous de­bate over se­cur­ity vs. pri­vacy, but it could have been achieved with far less dam­age than Snowden has caused.”

“Only see­ing the tip of the ice­berg on dis­clos­ures. The next round will sig­ni­fic­antly im­pact U.S. in­tel­li­gence ef­forts abroad, not U.S. civil-liber­ties is­sues.”

“Ab­so­lutely not. The in­form­a­tion re­leased thus far is a very small part of mil­lions of doc­u­ments. He is ac­count­able for the re­lease and use of all the in­form­a­tion, not just what he chooses to dis­cuss. That is the is­sue that is not be­ing dis­cussed and should be.”

“It’s not clear what else Snowden has … or to whom he re­leased his in­form­a­tion. There could still be some ser­i­ous long-term dam­age.”

“The dis­clos­ures go far bey­ond any­thing re­motely con­nec­ted to the pri­vacy rights of Amer­ic­ans and in­stead con­sti­tute a whole­sale at­tack on U.S. in­tel­li­gence cap­ab­il­it­ies and for­eign re­la­tions. The only value of that is to U.S. ad­versar­ies.”

“Re­quir­ing NSA to go to court for medadata ac­cess en­dangers our ter­ror fight­ers’ rap­id re­sponse to se­cur­ity threats.”

“We can’t really meas­ure either yet, but we don’t want ding­bat 29-year-old con­tract­or-wonks mak­ing the call.”

“Too soon for a defin­it­ive an­swer. It won’t be the de­clar­a­tions of the in­tel com­munity or the over­sight com­mit­tees on the Hill that will force ser­i­ous dia­logue on change in the way we man­age the NSA. Rather, it will be the bot­tom lines of the U.S. tech gi­ants be­ing beaten down by back­lash in Europe and Asia that will force ser­i­ous dis­cus­sion and pos­sibly change.”

“Pri­vacy and in­tel­li­gence over­sight dis­cus­sions should be hap­pen­ing as Con­gress, the courts, and the ex­ec­ut­ive branch over­see in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tions. The three co­equal branches of gov­ern­ment should be ful­filling their re­spect­ive func­tions. Func­tion­ing over­sight mech­an­isms should al­ways be in place , but that does not ex­cuse Ed­ward Snowden’s ac­tions. He know­ingly and will­fully broke the law when he stole data from the NSA. His rev­el­a­tions will cost the U.S. bil­lions of dol­lars in lost in­tel­li­gence and lost man-hours. These rev­el­a­tions also im­pair mil­it­ary read­i­ness in that they have com­prom­ised sig­ni­fic­ant and dearly bought in­tel­li­gence and op­er­a­tion­al cap­ab­il­it­ies. The con­sequences of these com­prom­ises will only be fully ap­pre­ci­ated when we fail to pre­vail against our for­eign ad­versar­ies in a fu­ture con­flict.”

“Sad, be­cause there is a need for a na­tion­al dia­logue about in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing and pri­vacy rights. But Snowden has yet to re­veal any ab­uses, and the vast ma­jor­ity of what he has leaked has badly dam­aged the IC’s abil­ity to what they have been asked to do. A trait­or, yes, but even more a mor­al cow­ard. If he had been ser­i­ous in his stated in­tent, he would taken the path that Frank Snepp and Daniel Ells­berg took.”

“No, the cost ex­po­nen­tially ex­ceeds the be­ne­fit in terms of un­der­min­ing the se­cur­ity of the United States. I agree that we needed a de­bate about how much we were do­ing. But, this was not the way to go about it.”

“Snowden re­leased far more than was ne­ces­sary to his own re­form agenda — dam­age has been in­cal­cul­able and has noth­ing to do with his stated goals.”


“I wel­come this de­bate.”

“We would nev­er have a de­bate on sur­veil­lance without his dis­clos­ures, whistle-blower or not.”

“Yes, the doc­u­ments show that the agency was massively vi­ol­at­ing every cit­izen’s pri­vacy with its enorm­ous metadata pro­gram. At the same time, it was grow­ing more and more out of con­trol with neither the White House, the FISA court, nor the Con­gress will­ing to rein it in. When an agency be­gins to go rogue, it in­vites whistle-blowers. And since vir­tu­ally all the in­form­a­tion re­leased has dealt with ab­uses at home or de­ceit with al­lies, and noth­ing on North Korean or oth­er ad­versar­ies, whatever dam­age there was was min­im­al com­pared to the be­ne­fit.”

“The value was worth the cost if the U.S. gov­ern­ment were to ap­point a Church-com­mis­sion like or­gan­iz­a­tion and change, and the Amer­ic­an people were to de­mand it. Without such change, the U.S. has lost our stand­ing to chas­tise the sur­veil­lance of coun­tries like China and Ir­an against their people, and that is a great­er harm than what is be­ing dis­cussed in the me­dia.”

“The Snowden dis­clos­ures promp­ted a much needed as­sess­ment and pub­lic dia­logue. Clap­per over­states the dam­age, but much of the dam­age caused could be fixed with more thought­ful policy.”

Na­tion­al Journ­al’s Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity In­siders Poll is a peri­od­ic sur­vey of more than 100 de­fense and for­eign policy ex­perts. They in­clude: Gor­don Adams, Charles Al­len, Thad Al­len, Gra­ham Al­lis­on, James Bam­ford, Dav­id Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Ber­gen, Samuel “Sandy” Ber­ger, Dav­id Ber­teau, Steph­en Biddle, Nancy Bird­sall, Mari­on Blakey, Kit Bond, Stu­art Bowen, Paula Broad­well, Mike Breen, Mark Brun­ner, Steven Bucci, Nich­olas Burns, Dan By­man, James Jay Cara­fano, Phil­lip Carter, Wendy Cham­ber­lin, Mi­chael Cher­toff, Frank Cil­luffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clem­ons, Joseph Collins, Wil­li­am Court­ney, Lorne Cran­er, Ro­ger Cres­sey, Gregory Dahl­berg, Robert Dan­in, Richard Dan­zig, Daniel Drezn­er, Mack­en­zie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, An­drew Ex­um, Wil­li­am Fal­lon, Eric Farns­worth, Jacques Gansler, Steph­en Gan­yard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gun­zinger, Todd Har­ris­on, John Hamre, Jim Harp­er, Marty Haus­er, Mi­chael Hay­den, Mi­chael Her­son, Pete Hoek­stra, Bruce Hoff­man, Linda Hud­son, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Don­ald Ker­rick, Rachel Klein­feld, Lawrence Korb, Dav­id Kramer, An­drew Kre­pinev­ich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lind­say, Justin Lo­gan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ron­ald Marks, Bri­an Mc­Caf­frey, Steven Metz, Frank­lin Miller, Mi­chael Mo­rell, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kev­in Neal­er, Mi­chael Oates, Thomas Pick­er­ing, Paul Pil­lar, Larry Pri­or, Steph­en Rade­maker, Marc Rai­mondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Ro­ten­berg, Frank Rug­giero, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Steph­en Ses­t­an­ovich, Sarah Se­wall, Mat­thew Sher­man, Jen­nifer Sims, Su­z­anne Spauld­ing, Con­stan­ze Stelzen­müller, Ted Stroup, Guy Swan, Frances Town­send, Mick Train­or, Richard Wil­helm, Tamara Wittes, Dov Za­kheim, and Juan Za­r­ate.

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