The Ethics of CyberWar – Part 1

Published: March 12, 2015

By Jim Lichtman
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In the conclusion to his new book, @War – The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex (2014), journalist Shane Harris writes, “Governments and corporations are making the rules as they go, and their actions have had a more tangible effect than many have realized. It’s incumbent on everyone who touches cyberspace – which is undeniably a collective – to find what Eisenhower called ‘essential agreement on issues of great moment, the wise resolution of which will better shape the future of the nation.’ ”


In that same 1961 speech, Eisenhower also makes this prophetic observation: “We face a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to interpret Eisenhower’s accurate forecast of ISIS and al-Qaeda whose purpose has been to inflict violence on the West and its allies.

I had a chance to talk to Harris and discuss his book that is a mix of education and call to action. I began by asking about, arguably, the most infamous intelligence leaker on the planet, Edward Snowden.

LICHTMAN: According to the Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, “The vast majority of the documents that Snowden [released]… … 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.”


HARRIS: Dempsey has said that what’s in the [NSA] database, and apparently has not been published, does relate to operational issues, military issues, etc. I can’t say for sure whether he’s right or wrong, because I have not personally seen the documents. I do know from talking to people who have seen the documents that they thought that there were materials in there of a very sensitive, operational nature that should not be published. One person who commented to me; someone in the camp that says let’s expose more about domestic and foreign surveillance, has said that there are things in there that should not be published.

It’s also important to note that it’s not as if our adversaries are unaware of the fact that we monitor communications on a vast, global scale. What I’ve learned from counter-terrorism officials was that [groups like ISIS] have clearly understood that we monitor social media, cell phone communication and text-based messaging, and that they’re taking steps to tighten up their security – stay off the phone, remove geographic data from their tweets, etc.

When I asked senior officials “Is this because of Snowden?” They said, “No. This is an adversary understanding what they’re up against and adapting to their environment.”

I have no doubt that there were things in the Snowden documents that may have tipped off our adversaries to some degree, but so did reporting on the NSA’s warrantless wire-tapping program of 2005. I’m very skeptical of the claim that this has been so devastating, that we’ve lost all capability. I don’t doubt that some capability may have been lost, but in an open society we weigh these costs and benefits constantly.

LICHTMAN: Among the problems I’ve had with Snowden from the beginning is that, rather than take his concerns directly to the Senate Intelligence Committee, he went straight to journalists; secondly, that he set himself up as the arbiter – in looking at this vast amount of information – as to what is harmful and what isn’t. Many people have put Snowden in the same category as Daniel Ellsberg and his release of the secret “Pentagon Papers.”

HARRIS: I think that the most important activities that he exposed are probably domestic surveillance activities – activities directed at Americans communications, or American companies and trying to get information from them.

The two, first big stories that came out were the so-called, metadata program which was the collection of Americans phone records. That to me is probably the single most important story that came out of his disclosures. The reason for that is that involved an interpretation of law that I think is both controversial and also was not fully understood by members of Congress, particularly members of Congress who are oversee the NSA.

Now, there’s a whole separate debate about the extent to which intelligence informed Congress about the fact that it was collecting metadata, phone records and why they thought that was legal, and why they thought that wasn’t protected by the Fourth Amendment. And there were questions about whether all members fully understood or availed themselves of the briefing. Putting that aside, it is definitely revelatory to most Americans to find out that the NSA has been collecting their phone records since 9/11. That was an important story that needed to come out.

If you’re looking at Edward Snowden in the spectrum of hero vs. traitor or whistle-blower, I’ve always thought that had he merely exposed that program. [If he had gone] to the Intelligence Committee I think his narrative would have turned out very differently, because most people that I’ve talked to in the NSA agree that [the metadata program] was a program of some great controversy and great public importance that was not fully understood by the Congress for whatever reason. If it had stopped there, I think a lot of people, including his critics, probably would have said, “Okay, maybe we didn’t support the fact that you leaked, but this is one of those legitimate cases where the public interest was at stake.”

However, there are many other stories that have come out, and many other documents that have come out that really start to bend that interpretation, and this is why you have such a divisive kind of reaction to Snowden. On the one hand, there are people who advocate for tremendous, full transparency on intelligence operations, up to and including reporting the kind of stories that have been out there. And there are those that say, no, what Snowden did was to indiscriminately collect a huge amount of information that he never could have possibly known everything it contained and then just turn it over to journalists. So, given the nature of the leaks themselves, which involved so much information, and also the fact that the leaker, Snowden, identified himself and became a part of this story, it’s complicated to understand in the context of a traditional whistle-blower activity like Daniel Ellsberg.

I don’t think he’s like Ellsberg. Ellsberg was much more focused and kind of narrow in what his intentions were. Ellsberg has spoken very publicly in his support of Snowden. But I think that what Snowden did, was qualitatively different, and probably heralds a new kind of leaking, or whistle-blowing that’s going to see more people circumventing the traditional bureaucracy because they feel that [that bureaucracy] is not going to support them. And I think he has good reason to think that if he had gone to Congress, they probably wouldn’t have done anything about it, nor would the NSA’s Inspector General.

This is a whole new way of shinning a light on internal operations.

LICHTMAN: Do you see Snowden as a hero or traitor?

HARRIS: I don’t take either of those labels. I think that he is, obviously, a tremendous source. I think that the information that has come out, based on his leaks, has been illuminating and helpful for the debate around surveillance and where we should be drawing the limits. There’s been a forcing function to release those documents in Congress and the Executive Branch, which is not to say that we’ve dramatically changed surveillance, we haven’t.

Do I agree with all of the stories that have been published? No. But you’re not going to find a consensus among journalists on that question, anyway.

I’ve worked very hard not to judge his motives and not to try and fit him into a box, because as a journalist, I’m a beneficiary of the information he exposed. So, I try to take Snowden out of the equation, in that respect.

I don’t think you can call him a hero, or a traitor. I think he’s much more complicated than that. And I think that our desire to try and define him in that binary way reflects the passions about the subject that he exposed. In terms of our democracy, they are existential-level questions that he is bringing up.

Up Next: How do we balance the right to privacy with the expectation of security?


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