Last month, Citizenfour was awarded an Oscar for best documentary in 2014. The film concerns intelligence thief Edward Snowden, and the massive amount of documents he leaked to the media regarding a variety of NSA programs. The title comes from the pseudonym adopted by Snowden in an encrypted e-mail sent to director Laura Poitras in which he offered her inside information about illegal wiretapping practices by the NSA.
Snowden’s story and subsequent film garnered much media attention especially after it had been reported that Snowden ended up in a sort of legal limbo in Russia. He’s been hailed as a latter day Daniel Ellsberg who released the “Pentagon Papers.” I don’t agree with that assessment. The “Pentagon Papers” proved to be clear and compelling evidence that President Johnson lied, not only to Americans about the war in Viet Nam, but to Congress, as well. Snowden is hardly in the same class after issuing thousands of classified documents: 15,000 or more Australian Intelligence files; 58,000 British Intelligence files, and the list goes on.
According to the Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, “The vast majority of the documents that Snowden … exfiltrated from our highest levels of security … had nothing to do with exposing government oversight of domestic activities. The vast majority of those were related to our military capabilities, operations, tactics, techniques and procedures.” In February of this year, NSA’s new Director Admiral Michael Rogers said that Snowden’s disclosures created “blind spots” in the NSA’s surveillance by revealing U.S. strategies to monitor terrorism. “It has had a material impact on our ability to generate insights as to what terrorist groups around the world are doing,” he said. “Anyone thinks this has not had an impact … doesn’t know what they are talking about.”
Although I have not seen the film, the film’s trailer paints a picture of an American patriot coming forward under the pretext of educating the citizenry to the fact that everything we do, watch, click, type, or call is being scooped up and kept by the NSA in Big Brotherly fashion that, presumably, would be harmful to all of us in the long run. But as Dempsey points out, most of the documents had little to do domestic surveillance.
I am not necessarily opposed to Snowden blowing the whistle on some of what he sees as an infringement on privacy. I am opposed to someone who A) appears to have all-seeing, all-knowing knowledge of the impact of these programs; B) has set himself up as the final arbiter of just what is harmful; and C) Did not first report his concerns to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee headed by Richard Burr and Diane Feinstein.
When it comes to the precise harm Snowden has done to our own intelligence, I defer to those individuals who have the experience and knowledge of such things. Henry Crumpton was an intelligence officer who led the CIA’s Afghanistan campaign for 2001-2002. He’s written and reported extensively on intelligence related issues, most notably in his 2013 book, The Art of Intelligence.
For those who may be disturbed by many of the claims made by Snowden, it’s important to hear from the other side, and to understand the context of the new enemy we are dealing with and how best to combat them.
In an opinion posted in the Wall Street Journal (Feb. 20), Crumpton writes, “Every day seems to bring news of more horror from the Middle East, Nigeria and the heart of Europe. Yet the terrorists appear to operate with near impunity, exploiting the world’s information connectivity for their social-media campaigns. Their sophisticated propaganda helps inspire and recruit. According to the National Counterterrorism Center, enemy combatants in Syria and Iraq include 20,000 foreigners from 90 countries. More than 3,400 of these recruits are Western passport holders who may return to the West, including the U.S., to continue their war.
“The most troubling aspect of this threat is that U.S. intelligence probably knows less about the enemy’s plans and intentions than at any point since 9/11. The al Qaeda that launched 9/11 was centrally controlled—operating mostly from one major haven in Afghanistan—and communicated sporadically through a few channels.
“Today there are more than 800,000 individuals on the U.S. terror watch list. The enemy has metastasized and decentralized, operating from havens much closer to Europe, and it uses thousands of communications channels for disguised and sometimes encrypted messages. …
“…Edward Snowden and his accomplices exposed National Security Agency operations, providing the enemy with a huge advantage in deceiving and denying U.S. signals-intelligence collection. These publicized top-secret operations, some ill-considered, undercut the trust of both foreign allies and U.S. private-sector partners.
“Telecommunications, software, hardware and social-media firms have reduced their cooperation with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement—while boosting encryption against the U.S. government. Last September, FBI Director James Comey publicly criticized Apple and Google for their lack of support, warning: ‘There will come a day when it will matter a great deal to the lives of people . . . that we will be able to gain access.’ Even before 9/11, a large percentage of actionable counterterrorism leads came from signals intelligence. This collection is now more difficult than ever. …
“In this type of war, the value of intelligence will continue to grow, and not merely to find or kill targets. Intelligence provides a map of the human terrain, helps illuminate and develop alliances, and informs decisions about enduring political solutions.
“We can correct the current trends that impair U.S. intelligence. For instance, instead of pitting intelligence professionals against the citizens they serve, leaders in the White House and Congress must become responsible intelligence customers. Defining the missions, setting policies and posing relevant questions are the way to start and direct any intelligence process.
“Leaders in Washington must empower and support intelligence professionals, especially in the field, where battles are won and lost. The country needs dynamic and deep intelligence, focused on the enemy in his havens, and directed by field operatives who can trust their political masters. That means intelligence agencies that are less Washington-centric, and fewer Washington-directed operations.
“America’s political leaders must educate themselves about the value and limits of intelligence, work with civic and business leaders to promote a greater understanding of intelligence, and build trusted networks at home and abroad to advance the nation’s mission and defeat its enemies. American citizens, and the intelligence professionals who defend them, deserve much better.”
Crumpton not only points to a lack of clear understanding by political leaders, but the rampant politicization of intelligence. In order for us to defeat a technologically fast-growing and sophisticated enemy, Washington needs to stop using intelligence as a political football, and get on the same page by educating themselves with the professionals in the field and developing a comprehensive plan to implement and support.
This is not to say that oversight isn’t necessary. It’s vital. But if we are to get ahead of the enemy, we need to ensure that policies and programs are in place to curtail future Snowdens from releasing hundreds of thousands of documents that can harm any attempt to learn about future 9/11-style attacks.
Along with responsible oversight, we need a fully engaged, bipartisan Intelligence Committee committed to educating themselves to programs and policies that will take into consideration a careful balance between privacy rights and the needs of intelligence programs to track and uncover those who would do us harm. In this respect, Google, Apple, Facebook, and every other internet company operating in this country needs to get some religion and understand that if we don’t work from the same page, we are only making ourselves more vulnerable to future attacks.
As for Edward Snowden, latest news reports that Snowden and his lawyers are negotiating with U.S. government officials for a way for him to come home. If he does, any negotiation should not preclude him from facing a fair trial for his crimes.