Edward Snowden Is Completely Wrong

Whether he’s a hero or traitor, Americans are already so acclimated to the loss of privacy that his revelations won’t unnerve them much.

A TV screen shows the news of Edward Snowden, former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping U.S. surveillance programs, at a restaurant in Hong Kong Wednesday, June 12, 2013. The whereabouts of Snowden remained unknown Wednesday, two days after he checked out of a Hong Kong hotel.
National Journal
June 13, 2013, 4:15 p.m.

Is he a hero — the most im­port­ant whistle-blower in U.S. his­tory, as Pentagon Pa­pers leak­er Daniel Ells­berg called him? Or is Ed­ward Snowden a flat-out trait­or and a very de­luded young man? The 29-year-old con­tract­or at the cen­ter of the biggest na­tion­al se­cur­ity scan­dal in years is elo­quent and im­press­ively in­tel­li­gent, hav­ing ris­en from high school dro­pout and se­cur­ity guard at the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency to uber sys­tems ad­min­is­trat­or at the CIA. Snowden also ap­pears to have ac­ted genu­inely out of con­science, be­cause it’s clear he could have sold what he knows for quite a lot of money, taken down “the sur­veil­lance struc­ture in an af­ter­noon” (as he de­clared in an in­ter­view), or re­vealed un­der­cov­er as­sets that might “have cost lives. In­stead, Snowden, a product of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment eco­sys­tem who grew up in the D.C. sub­urbs, says he has sac­ri­ficed his own “very com­fort­able” life to ex­pose what he calls Wash­ing­ton’s “ar­chi­tec­ture of op­pres­sion.”

What’s not clear is why Snowden thought that re­veal­ing the NSA’s sur­veil­lance meth­ods would change very much in our gov­ern­ment or so­ci­ety, ex­cept to make it much harder for the NSA, the CIA, and de­fense and in­tel­li­gence con­tract­ors to hire any­one like him in the fu­ture.

That pro­cess, if little else, must now change. Snowden will likely be charged with es­pi­on­age, or worse. Wash­ing­ton will massively re­vamp its vet­ting pro­ced­ures, es­pe­cially for gi­ant con­tract­ors such as Booz Al­len Hamilton, which has grown fat on a diet of gov­ern­ment work and ap­peared to hire Snowden in Hawaii at a gen­er­ous salary of $120,000 al­most as an af­ter­thought. Con­tracts like the one he worked on — to help the gov­ern­ment ana­lyze an over­whelm­ing stream of data — rep­res­en­ted 99 per­cent of its rev­en­ue, most of them re­lated to the NSA.

Oth­er than tightened se­cur­ity clear­ances, though, the start­ling rev­el­a­tions of the past sev­er­al days will prob­ably al­ter very little in the lives of Amer­ic­ans or the way the gov­ern­ment works in a data-driv­en world. That’s not just be­cause, apart from a few out­raged sen­at­ors — Demo­crats Ron Wyden of Ore­gon and Mark Ud­all of Col­or­ado and liber­tari­an Re­pub­lic­an Rand Paul of Ken­tucky — al­most the en­tire U.S. gov­ern­ment, from the White House to Con­gress to the ju­di­ciary, has come out in sup­port of the NSA pro­gram of col­lect­ing troves of tele­phone data and per­son­al In­ter­net in­form­a­tion, us­ing the serv­ers and tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions sys­tems of Amer­ica’s biggest com­pan­ies. If the man­dar­ins of of­fi­cial Wash­ing­ton don’t amend their con­duct, it’s be­cause Amer­ic­ans aren’t ask­ing them to.


The reas­on may not be en­tirely ob­vi­ous at first. In the past dec­ade, our very concept of pri­vacy has changed to the point that we’re less likely to see in­form­a­tion-shar­ing as a vi­ol­a­tion of our per­son­al liberty. In an era when our daily lives are already net­worked, we have E-ZPasses that give us ac­cess to the fast lane in ex­change for keep­ing the gov­ern­ment in­formed about where we drive. We shop on­line des­pite know­ing that the com­mer­cial world will track our buy­ing pref­er­ences. We share our per­son­al re­flec­tions and habits not only with Face­book and Google but also (al­beit some­times in­ad­vert­ently) with thou­sands of on­line mar­keters who want our in­form­a­tion. All of this means Amer­ic­ans are less likely to erupt in out­rage today over one more eye on their be­ha­vi­or. “One thing I find amus­ing is the ab­so­lute ter­ror of Big Broth­er, when we’ve all already gone and said, “˜Cuff me,’ to Little Broth­er,” jokes John Ar­quilla, an in­tel­li­gence ex­pert at the Nav­al Post­gradu­ate School in Monterey, Cal­if.

The latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll bears this out. Amer­ic­ans are vaguely aware of these slowly erod­ing walls of pri­vacy, and 55 per­cent say they are wor­ried about the over­all ac­cu­mu­la­tion of per­son­al in­form­a­tion about them “by busi­nesses, law en­force­ment, gov­ern­ment, in­di­vidu­als, and oth­er groups.” The sur­vey also found that an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve that busi­ness, gov­ern­ment, so­cial-me­dia sites, and oth­er groups are ac­cess­ing their most per­son­al in­form­a­tion without their con­sent. Even so, for the most part, they ac­cept it as an un­avoid­able mod­ern phe­nomen­on. Most young­er and col­lege-edu­cated people — in con­trast to Snowden — take a be­nign view of these changes.

Des­pite the press treat­ment of the NSA story, which judging from ed­it­or­i­al opin­ion has come out largely on Snowden’s side, most Amer­ic­ans ap­pear re­l­at­ively un­per­turbed. A Pew Re­search Cen­ter/Wash­ing­ton Post poll con­duc­ted last week­end found that 56 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve NSA ac­cess to the call re­cords of mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans is an “ac­cept­able” way for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to in­vest­ig­ate ter­ror­ism. An even big­ger ma­jor­ity, 62 per­cent, said it was more im­port­ant for the gov­ern­ment to in­vest­ig­ate ter­ror­ist threats than it was to safe­guard per­son­al pri­vacy. That ex­plains why soft queas­i­ness has not con­gealed in­to hard polit­ic­al out­rage.

An­oth­er prob­lem for the alarm­ists: No evid­ence sug­gests that the worst fears of people like Snowden have ever been real­ized. In his in­ter­view with The Guard­i­an, which broke the story along with The Wash­ing­ton Post, Snowden warned that the NSA’s ac­cu­mu­la­tion of per­son­al data “in­creases every year con­sist­ently by or­ders of mag­nitude to where it’s get­ting to the point where you don’t have to have done any­thing wrong. You simply have to even­tu­ally fall un­der sus­pi­cion from some­body.”

In a state with no checks and bal­ances, that is a pos­sib­il­ity. But even the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on, which has called NSA sur­veil­lance “a stone’s throw away from an Or­wellian state,” ad­mits it knows of no cases where any­thing even re­motely Or­wellian has happened. Nor can any op­pon­ent of NSA sur­veil­lance point to a Kafkaesque Joseph K. who has ap­peared in an Amer­ic­an courtroom on mys­ter­i­ous charges trumped up from gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance. Sev­er­al civil-liber­ties ad­voc­ates, asked to cite a single case of ab­use of in­form­a­tion, all paused for long seconds and could not cite any.

There is also great mis­un­der­stand­ing about how the NSA sys­tem works and wheth­er such ab­use could even hap­pen in the fu­ture. It’s un­clear if the gov­ern­ment will be cap­able of ac­cess­ing and mis­us­ing the vast ar­ray of per­son­al data it is ac­cu­mu­lat­ing, as Snowden pre­dicts. The NSA ap­pears primar­ily to use com­puter al­gorithms to sift through its data­base for pat­terns that may be pos­sible clues to ter­ror­ist plots. The gov­ern­ment says it is not eaves­drop­ping on our phone calls or voyeur­ist­ic­ally read­ing our e-mails. In­stead, it tracks the “metadata” of phone calls — whom we call and when, the dur­a­tion of those con­ver­sa­tions — and uses com­puter al­gorithms to trawl its data­bases for phone pat­terns or e-mail and search keywords that may be clues to ter­ror­ist plots. It can also map net­works by link­ing known op­er­at­ives with po­ten­tial new sus­pects. If something stands out as sus­pi­cious, agents are still re­quired by law to ob­tain a court or­der to look in­to the data they have in their store­houses. Of­fi­cials must show “prob­able cause” and ad­here to the prin­ciple of “min­im­iz­a­tion,” by which the gov­ern­ment com­mits to re­du­cing as much as pos­sible the in­ad­vert­ent va­cu­um­ing up of in­form­a­tion on cit­izens in­stead of for­eign­ers — the real tar­get of the NSA’s PRISM pro­gram. The pro­gram, ac­cord­ing to Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per, has had suc­cess. He told NBC that track­ing a sus­pi­cious com­mu­nic­a­tion from Pakistan to a per­son in Col­or­ado al­lowed of­fi­cials to identi­fy a ter­ror­ist cell in New York City that wanted to bomb its sub­way sys­tem in the fall of 2009.

In­deed, the scan­dal is per­haps nar­row­er in scope than it’s made out to be. “The only nov­el leg­al de­vel­op­ment that I see in that area is the gov­ern­ment says, “˜We know there’s rel­ev­ant in­form­a­tion in there — if we don’t get it now it will be gone; we won’t be able to find it when we need it. So we’ll gath­er it now and then we’ll search it only when we have a good basis for the search to be done,’ “ says Stew­art Baker, who was the first as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary for policy at the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment and is a former NSA gen­er­al coun­sel. “The courts are still in­volved. They say, “˜You put it in a safe place, lock it up, come to me when you want to search it.’ If you’re ser­i­ous about ways to make [coun­terter­ror­ism] work and still pro­tect pri­vacy, it seems like a pretty good com­prom­ise.”

Baker says the gov­ern­ment built in as many con­trols and over­sights as it could think of. “Two dif­fer­ent pres­id­ents from two dif­fer­ent parties with very dif­fer­ent per­spect­ives. Two dif­fer­ent In­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees led by two dif­fer­ent parties. A dozen judges chosen from among the life-ap­poin­ted ju­di­ciary. None of them thought this was leg­ally prob­lem­at­ic,” Baker says. “And one guy says, “˜Yeah, I dis­agree, so I’m go­ing to blow it up.’ If the in­sist­ence is, “˜It only sat­is­fies me if it’s out in pub­lic,’ then we’re not talk­ing about in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing. We’re not even talk­ing about law en­force­ment. We’re talk­ing about re­search. And I’m not sure you can run a large coun­try in a dan­ger­ous world just by do­ing open-source re­search.”

Oth­er ad­voc­ates of the NSA op­er­a­tion say the sheer vast­ness of the pro­gram is what helps shield cit­izens. “In­di­vidu­als are pro­tec­ted by the an­onym­ity gran­ted by the quant­ity of in­form­a­tion,” says Eric Pos­ner, a Uni­versity of Chica­go law pro­fess­or. “It’s just too dif­fi­cult to spy on such a vast num­ber of people in a way that’s mean­ing­ful.”


Be­ha­vi­or­al re­search shows that, like the pro­ver­bi­al frog in the pot of wa­ter who doesn’t no­tice the rising tem­per­at­ure, Amer­ic­ans have grown in­ured to the “cul­ture of in­tru­sion” in today’s world of con­tinu­ous data ex­change. “There are un­deni­able changes in be­ha­vi­or we have been ob­serving in the past 10 years or so, with the birth and rise of so­cial me­dia,” says Aless­andro Ac­quisti, an eco­nom­ist at Carne­gie Mel­lon Uni­versity who has stud­ied the ef­fects. “There is evid­ence that people will give away per­son­al data for very small re­wards, such as the psy­cho­lo­gic­al be­ne­fit of shar­ing with oth­ers, or even for a dis­count coupon,” he says. “For in­stance, on so­cial me­dia, people quite openly talk, without con­tain­ing their audi­ence only to their Face­book friends, about dat­ing, eat­ing, go­ing out, suc­cess, and fail­ures — something that 10 years ago you would have dis­closed only to your dir­ect friends.”

The Michigan-based Ponemon In­sti­tute, which con­ducts in­de­pend­ent re­search on pri­vacy and data col­lec­tion, has found that a re­l­at­ively small num­ber of Amer­ic­ans, only about 14 per­cent, care enough about their pri­vacy on a con­sist­ent basis to change their be­ha­vi­or to pre­serve it. These are the people who will not buy a book on Amazon be­cause they would have to sur­render in­form­a­tion about them­selves, or don’t go to cer­tain web­sites if they fear they’re go­ing to be be­ha­vi­or­ally pro­filed, or won’t con­trib­ute to polit­ic­al cam­paigns for the same reas­on. By con­trast, a sub­stan­tial ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans, about 63 per­cent, say they care about their pri­vacy, but “there’s no evid­ence to sug­gest they’re go­ing to do any­thing dif­fer­ent to pre­serve it,” says Larry Ponemon, who runs the in­sti­tute. (Some 23 per­cent care so little about the is­sue they are known as “pri­vacy com­pla­cent,” Ponemon says.)

People are blithe even as they dis­cov­er how much their on­line be­ha­vi­or can hurt them per­son­ally, on everything from job and col­lege ap­plic­a­tions to ter­ror­ist in­vest­ig­a­tions. “People are los­ing jobs be­cause of things they pos­ted on their Face­book page,” says Loren Thompson, chief op­er­at­ing of­ficer of the Lex­ing­ton In­sti­tute, who re­fuses to use Face­book or Twit­ter or even con­duct po­ten­tially con­tro­ver­sial searches on Google. “I just had a feel­ing all along that by the time people real­ized how vul­ner­able they were, it would be too late. There would be too much in­form­a­tion about them on­line.”

There is a dif­fer­ence, to be sure, between gov­ern­ment and private-sec­tor ab­uses of pri­vacy. “Even I re­cog­nize that it’s one thing for Google to know too much, be­cause they aren’t put­ting me in jail. It’s an­oth­er thing for gov­ern­ment, be­cause they can co­erce me,” says Mi­chael Hay­den, who as dir­ect­or of the NSA from 1999 to 2006 was a primary mover be­hind the agency’s trans­form­a­tion from Cold War di­no­saur to a post-9/11 ter­ror-de­tec­tion le­viath­an with some­times fright­en­ing tech­nic­al and leg­al powers. “But if we wer­en’t do­ing this, there would be holy hell to raise.”

That is likely true, too. De­fend­ers of the pro­gram say, as Hay­den does, that the gov­ern­ment had no choice. “This is about tap­ing for­eign tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions trans­mis­sions that just hap­pen to pass through the United States be­cause of the way the In­ter­net ar­chi­tec­ture is de­signed,” Thompson says. “It really doesn’t have any­thing to do with spy­ing on Amer­ic­ans; it’s about spy­ing on for­eign­ers the easy way.” At first this meant find­ing the right com­mu­nic­a­tions hard­ware. The USS Jimmy Carter, a Sea­wolf-class sub­mar­ine, was mod­i­fied to tap in­to the trunk lines, but there are really only a hand­ful of ma­jor In­ter­net con­duits to the Middle East, Thompson says. Even­tu­ally, someone prob­ably said, “Jeep­ers, most of this traffic passes through the U.S. any­way. Why don’t we just talk to Ve­r­i­zon?”

Hay­den ad­mit­ted this, sur­pris­ingly, in an open ses­sion of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee way back in 2000, telling the mem­bers that this mon­it­or­ing was needed to en­able the NSA to get in front of the data. No one listened right way, but after 9/11 and the pas­sage of the USA Pat­ri­ot Act, the mood shif­ted dra­mat­ic­ally in fa­vor of more ag­gress­ive sur­veil­lance. “This agency grew up in the Cold War. We came from the world of En­igma [the Nazi en­cryp­tion device whose code was broken by the Al­lies], for God’s sake. There were no pri­vacy con­cerns in in­ter­cept­ing Ger­man com­mu­nic­a­tions to their sub­mar­ines, or Rus­si­an mi­crowave trans­mis­sions to mis­sile bases,” Hay­den says today. Now, “all the data you want to go for is co­ex­ist­ing with your stuff. And the trick then, the only way the NSA suc­ceeds, is to get enough power to be able to reach that new data but with enough trust to know enough not to grab your stuff even though it’s whizz­ing right by.” The de­mon­iz­a­tion of the NSA now is iron­ic, he says, con­sid­er­ing that in late 2002 the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee (which in­cluded Wyden), in its joint 9/11 re­port with the House, cri­ti­cized the agency for its “fail­ure to ad­dress mod­ern com­mu­nic­a­tions tech­no­logy ag­gress­ively” and its “cau­tious ap­proach to any col­lec­tion of in­tel­li­gence re­lat­ing to activ­it­ies in the United States.”

Most Amer­ic­ans, based on the polls, seem will­ing to make the trade-off between what Pres­id­ent Obama called “mod­est en­croach­ments on pri­vacy” and safety from ter­ror­ists. “There is a lot of au­thor­it­ari­an over­reach in Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety, both from the drug war and the war on ter­ror,” Dav­id Si­mon, the writer and pro­du­cer of the hit HBO shows The Wire and Treme, wrote in his blog this week, in a scath­ing blast at Snowden and the pun­dits who have li­on­ized him. “But those planes really did hit those build­ings. And that bomb did in­deed blow up at the fin­ish line of the Bo­ston Mara­thon. And we really are in a con­tinu­ing, low-in­tens­ity, high-risk con­flict with a dif­fuse, com­mit­ted, and ideo­lo­gic­ally mo­tiv­ated en­emy. And for a mo­ment, just ima­gine how much blovi­at­ing would be waft­ing across our polit­ic­al spec­trum if, in the wake of an in­cid­ent of do­mest­ic ter­ror­ism, an Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent and his ad­min­is­tra­tion had failed to take full ad­vant­age of the ex­ist­ing tele­phon­ic data to do what is pos­sible to find those needles in the hay­stacks.”


Every time you go on­line, you’re a tar­get. Ad­vert­isers are search­ing for you — maybe not by name, but through your in­terests and your as­sessed in­come and even your health symp­toms, all based on your search-en­gine terms and the cook­ies de­pos­ited on your com­puter to watch you surf the In­ter­net and re­port back on your habits. Sites may have an agree­ment with ad­vert­isers, which can tar­get their mes­sages to you. And they likely sell this in­form­a­tion to third-party brokers who can do what they want with it.

A sweep­ing Wall Street Journ­al in­vest­ig­a­tion in 2010 found that the biggest U.S. web­sites have tech­no­lo­gies track­ing people who vis­it their pages, some­times up­wards of 100 tools per site. One in­trus­ive string of code even re­cor­ded users’ key­strokes and trans­mit­ted them to a data-gath­er­ing firm for ana­lys­is. “A di­git­al dossier over time is built up about you by that site or third-party ser­vice or data brokers,” says Adam Thier­er, seni­or re­search fel­low at the Mer­catus Cen­ter’s Tech­no­logy Policy Pro­gram at George Ma­son Uni­versity. “They col­lect these data pro­files and util­ize them to sell you or mar­ket you bet­ter ser­vices or goods.” This is what powers the free In­ter­net we know and love; users pay noth­ing or next to noth­ing for ser­vices — and give up pieces of per­son­al in­form­a­tion for ad­vert­isers in ex­change. If you search for a Mini Cooper on one web­site, you’re likely to see ads else­where for light­weight, fuel-ef­fi­cient cars. Com­pan­ies ro­bot­ic­ally cat­egor­ize users with de­scrip­tions such as “urb­an up­scale” to “rur­al NAS­CAR” to tail­or the ad­vert­ising ex­per­i­ence, says Jim Harp­er of the liber­tari­an Cato In­sti­tute. “They’ll use ZIP codes and census data to fig­ure out what their life­style pro­file is.”

As a res­ult of these changes, the gov­ern­ment’s very concept of pri­vacy has grown ever nar­row­er and more tech­nic­al. “Too of­ten, pri­vacy has been equated with an­onym­ity; and it’s an idea that is deeply rooted in Amer­ic­an cul­ture,” Don­ald Kerr, the prin­cip­al deputy dir­ect­or of na­tion­al in­tel­li­gence, said in 2007 as Con­gress was busy de­bat­ing new rules for gov­ern­ment eaves­drop­ping. That’s quickly fad­ing in­to his­tory, Kerr said. The new ver­sion of pri­vacy is defined by enough rules af­fect­ing the use of data that Amer­ic­ans’ con­sti­tu­tion­ally enu­mer­ated rights (pri­vacy not among them) will be safe. “Pro­tect­ing an­onym­ity isn’t a fight that can be won. Any­one that’s typed in their name on Google un­der­stands that.” We’ve already giv­en up so much pri­vacy to the gov­ern­ment, Kerr said back then, that it can be pro­tec­ted only by “in­spect­ors gen­er­al, over­sight com­mit­tees, and pri­vacy boards” that have be­come staples of the in­tel­li­gence com­munity.

Clap­per seems to be re­ly­ing on a sim­il­ar concept. The United States, he said in an in­ter­view with NBC, can put all the com­mu­nic­a­tions traffic that passes through the coun­try in a massive meta­phor­ic­al lib­rary. Pre­sum­ably, the “shelves” con­tain the phone num­bers of Amer­ic­ans, the dur­a­tion of their calls, and their e-mail cor­res­pond­ence. “To me, col­lec­tion of U.S. per­sons’ data would mean tak­ing the book off the shelf, open­ing it up, and read­ing it,” Clap­per said. In­stead, the gov­ern­ment is “very pre­cise” about which “books” it bor­rows from the lib­rary. “If it is one that be­longs or was put in there by an Amer­ic­an cit­izen or a U.S. per­son, we are un­der strict court su­per­vi­sion, and have to get per­mis­sion to ac­tu­ally look at that. So the no­tion that we’re trolling through every­one’s e-mails and voyeur­ist­ic­ally read­ing them, or listen­ing to every­one’s phone calls, is on its face ab­surd. We couldn’t do it even if we wanted to, and I as­sure you, we don’t want to.”

Crit­ics say the Con­sti­tu­tion’s Fourth Amend­ment, de­signed to guard against un­reas­on­able searches and seizures, should im­pede the gov­ern­ment’s ac­cess to per­son­al data — even if that in­form­a­tion is avail­able in the com­mer­cial sphere. “If Google has it, that says noth­ing about wheth­er the gov­ern­ment should have it,” says Cato’s Harp­er. “It’s not reas­on­able to col­lect in­form­a­tion without prob­able cause or reas­on­able sus­pi­cion.”

For most Amer­ic­ans, the re­as­sur­ance that the gov­ern­ment won’t gra­tu­it­ously pur­sue them may well be enough. For Snowden and his de­fend­ers, it clearly is not. In ex­plain­ing his dar­ing act, he said he hoped to pro­voke a na­tion­al de­bate about sur­veil­lance and secrecy, and ad­ded: “The greatest fear that I have re­gard­ing the out­come for Amer­ica of these dis­clos­ures is that noth­ing will change.”

That fear is likely to be real­ized. Snowden offered a valu­able win­dow in­to a top-secret world The Wash­ing­ton Post wrote about in great de­tail three years ago, when it pub­lished a series on a clandes­tine in­tel­li­gence-in­dus­tri­al com­plex that “has be­come so large, so un­wieldy, and so se­cret­ive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it em­ploys, how many pro­grams ex­ist with­in it, or ex­actly how many agen­cies do the same work.” Per­haps the coun­try should thank Snowden for re­open­ing that is­sue, even as it pro­sec­utes him for what is plainly a vi­ol­a­tion of his oath of secrecy. But after the thanks are offered, we will prob­ably just get back to busi­ness.

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