Best Defense

The more I listen to American intelligence officials, the more I edge toward Snowden

The more I listen to American intelligence officials, the more I edge toward Snowden

I’ve been really ambivalent about Edward Snowden, especially since he landed in Russia. At the outset I thought he clearly was wrong, akin to British defectors Kim Philby or Guy Burgess. Yet I have been struck that everyone under the age of 30 I’ve asked thinks he’s a hero. That has made me think some more.

I am not yet on his side, but I think I am becoming more sympathetic to him. I thought a lot about this over the Christmas break. I see four questions here:

  • Did he do the right thing?
  • Did he at the same time commit a crime?
  • Are the activities of the U.S. intelligence community that he exposed legal?
  • If so, are they wise?

It is possible that Snowden did the right thing but in the wrong way. Indeed, he may have helped the United States but committed a crime in doing so.

Yet that begs the question: What would have been the right way? Especially given the reckless disregard for the law shown by American national security officials over the last decade, he was right to be wary of going the civil disobedience route. We’ve seen the killing of American citizens held to be "enemy combatants," and intelligence officials certainly talk about Snowden as an enemy who has inflicted severe damage on their operations. Add two and two and you get a secret execution warrant for one Edward Snowden. Is that speculative? Absolutely. Ridiculous? Not if you have been paying attention to the erosion of boundaries (between civilian and military, war and peace, public and private, and most especially the militarization of intelligence operations).

I also think that the U.S. intelligence community, by simply insisting that it is doing the right thing and that Snowden is a contemptible traitor, end of discussion, is going to wind up the loser in this conversation. One well-informed person I know comments that this failure to engage seriously now presents "an existential threat to the entire USIC’s ability to operate with the support of the American people, Congress and the media." (He says the solution is to strengthen the director of national intelligence and give that office the powers actually envisioned by the 9/11 Commission, such as budget authority and direct regulatory oversight over all member agencies. That is, of course, another issue, but an important one.)

I especially am becoming more sympathetic to Snowden the more current and former American intelligence officials talk about killing Snowden and holding forth in other ways. Bart Gellman, one of the reporters who has broken a lot of Snowden’s news, wrote of a confrontation with a self-righteous general last summer, who angrily said to him, "We didn’t have another 9/11 [because intelligence enabled warfighters to find the enemy first]. Until you’ve got to pull the trigger, until you’ve had to bury your people, you don’t have a clue."

First, we have buried our people.

Second, until there is more accountability for the crimes committed by U.S. intelligence officials over the last 10 years, I am not inclined to let secret policemen and spies be the moral arbiters of our society or the interpreters of our constitutional rights — in fact, I think the burden is on them, not on me. I was not the one who tortured people, kidnapped others, delivered captives into the hands of governments we knew would torture them, and also wormholed some of our constitutional rights. And I didn’t allow 9/11 to happen in the first place, and then get all panicky after that. If we are to ask if Snowden damaged U.S. intelligence operations, we also need to ask how much U.S. intelligence operations damaged the United States over the last 10 years. They will tell you that there is secret evidence of all the attacks they stopped. I will tell you that there is secret evidence of all the laws they broke — or at least, there was such evidence, until the tapes were destroyed. There are a lot of people calling for accountability for Snowden who seem blind to the much larger crimes committed by U.S. intelligence officials.