When I first learned of Edward Snowden, the computer whiz of Booz Allen Hamilton who leaked hundreds, perhaps thousands, of classified documents from the National Security Agency (NSA), the first person I thought of was J. Edgar Hoover.
Hoover created the most sophisticated, large-scale crime-fighting mechanism of its time. The FBI was a formidable presence that got results. However, as we have since discovered, Hoover, under his own authority amassed files not only on criminals, but on politicians and private citizens alike. It is reported that Hoover’s file on comedian Charlie Chaplin was 1,200 pages long.
Presidents Truman and Kennedy attempted to replace Hoover, but quickly concluded that the political cost was too great. That’s code for: Hoover had a thick file on each and wasn’t afraid to use them. One could say that Hoover was the ultimate check on Washington’s power brokers, albeit to maintain hisown personal power.
And this is the central problem I have with one individual having the power of collecting, analyzing, judging and leaking hundreds of thousands of secret documents.
In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg was a former military analyst who released volumes of top secret documents, known as the Pentagon Papers, which revealed that the Johnson administration had lied about our involvement in Viet Nam.
The following year, the Watergate scandal exposed the vast covert activities orchestrated by the Nixon administration. The prime source for Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein for their background information turned out to be Mark Felt, Deputy Director of the FBI. Felt believed, rightly, that Nixon was subverting the democratic process for his own ends.
Both Ellsberg and Felt believed they were acting in the best interests of the country. Ellsberg exposed decades of lies. Felt exposed the rampant illegality of Richard Nixon.
However, the common link for both was context. Felt had intimate knowledge of the Nixon administration because the FBI was deeply involved in its own investigation of Watergate. Ellsberg, the analyst, knew much of the big picture behind the decision-making of Viet Nam.
In 2010, U.S. Army PFC Bradley Manning was responsible for leaking hundreds of thousands of current documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks – the online whistle-blowing site – “combining high-end security technologies with journalism and ethical principles.”
The problem with this, as I wrote in December 2010, is that they offered no specifics as to what those principles are other than the fact that they support free speech.
“I think the dilemma here is the scale,” Woodward told Larry King (Nov. 30, 2010) regarding Manning and WikiLeaks. “250,000 documents… The kind of massive publication of it, I have to label mindless. How can anyone figure out what it means…? I do agree with Secretary Clinton… If you’re just going to put it all out and not check with the government or sources that you can trust, you may get somebody killed and actually end very important operations that this country is involved in. It is clearly a dangerous time.”
The two critical points that Woodward brings up tell us a lot about his own standards. You need to check with ‘sources that you can trust.’ ”
Further, with hundreds of thousands of documents, analyzed by Manning alone, what contextual knowledge does he possess where he can accurately determine specific wrong-doing, and how does he know that the release of any of this information won’t place individuals and programs in danger.
This brings me back to Edward Snowden.
“I really want the focus to be on these documents,” Snowden told the British newspaper The Guardian, “and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in. My sole motive,” he added, “is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”
While I believe that his actions may have been for a higher purpose, where is his context? How can I trust one computer whiz to download, analyze and understand anything approaching the big picture?
Further, if he truly believes that the public has the right to know, one option open to him would have been to go directly to Congress where he could have been granted whistleblower protection. Instead, he chose to release classified information to the media without thinking about the consequences to agents or protocols already in the field.
Having said that, Snowden has revealed something critical that does warrant closer scrutiny.