Snowden’s Butterfly Effect

5 unlikely consequences of the NSA leaks.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Like a bull in a china shop, Edward Snowden breaks everything he touches. Among the items left in tatters by his leaks over the past two months: a fragile détente between the United States and China over hacking, an on-again, off-again post-9/11 consensus on aggressive intelligence-gathering, and, perhaps most notably, the illusion of privacy in the digital era.

Now, the ramifications of Snowden’s decision to reveal the National Security Agency’s most closely held secrets have entered the stage of second- and third-order consequences. As my colleague John Hudson reports, the Snowden revelations and the subsequent chill in U.S.-Russian relations threaten to torpedo one of President Barack Obama’s signature second-term initiatives: the reduction of deployed strategic nuclear weapons. With the president under immense pressure to retaliate against Russia for its decision to grant Snowden asylum, a planned summit between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin may not happen. As a result, the nuclear talks may collapse.

Call it the Snowden Butterfly Effect. Snowden’s leaks have resounded in nearly every corner of global politics, and their precise consequences are only beginning to emerge. Most obviously, the former NSA contractor’s disclosures have sparked a renewed debate over the scope of intelligence-gathering and handed China a powerful argument in countering American complaints over Chinese hacking activities.

Other consequences are far less obvious — but no less significant.

The Return of WikiLeaks

Early on in the Snowden saga, I wrote an article with the headline, "Assange Struggles to Stay Relevant in Snowden Affair." Boy, was I wrong. When Snowden first revealed his identity and squirreled away in Hong Kong, WikiLeaks appeared to be looking on in jealousy. The world’s most famous whistleblower had snubbed WikiLeaks in making his revelations, and Julian Assange hadn’t received positive headlines in months. Withering away in the Ecuadorean embassy, the WikiLeaks founder sounded tired and drained, his organization on the ropes.

Now, WikiLeaks has come roaring back, refashioning itself as a legal advisor and aide to individuals disclosing government secrets. Assange lieutenant Sarah Harrison shepherded Snowden from Hong Kong to Russia’s Sheremetyevo Airport, and now accompanies him in asylum somewhere in Moscow. With Snowden keeping a low profile, WikiLeaks has emerged as the sole interlocutor between the leaker and the world. As a result, the global media now hangs on Assange’s every word. Once more, Assange and WikiLeaks are back exactly where they want to be — at the center of a churning story with geopolitical ramifications.


The Sullying of Silicon Valley

Without the cooperation of America’s most prominent technology companies, the NSA would never have been able to amass its extraordinary power. By asking — and, in several cases, coercing — Silicon Valley to provide gateways to its databases and servers, the agency has gained access to just about every corner of the web. But prior to the Snowden revelations, the full extent of that relationship had escaped public scrutiny.

By disclosing the links between the agency and companies like Facebook and Google, Snowden sparked a wave of investigations into Silicon Valley’s ties to Fort Meade — and the reputations of these companies have suffered immensely as a result. In June, the New York Times revealed that Max Kelly, Facebook’s chief security officer, left the company in 2010 for the NSA. And in July, Reuters revealed that an intelligence agency paid $50,000 to an unnamed tech company supervisor who installed tampered computer chips in computers bound for a foreign customer so that they could be used for spying. Microsoft, meanwhile, found itself in the embarrassing position of running an ad campaign that declared "your privacy is our priority" just as the Guardian exposed that the company had handed over user content to the NSA and undermined its own encryption protocols for the agency’s benefit.

Silicon Valley likes to pride itself on its so-called hacker culture — a notion of digital innovation grounded in a commitment to smashing the status quo. Snowden’s revelations have put the lie to that claim, and these companies are now reaping the fruits of that collaboration. As my colleague Shane Harris reports, other governments are digesting the NSA revelations with a mixture of awe and anger, and now want their own NSA-like capabilities. As a result, they may force companies to relocate their servers from the United States to the countries in which they operate — making it that much easier to spy on their own citizens.

Strange Congressional Bedfellows

It isn’t often that Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats find themselves on the same side of an issue, but in late July these two disparate factions united to very nearly pass an amendment in the House that would have defunded the NSA’s bulk collection activities. They came within 12 votes of passing the measure. Incredibly, it required the personal intervention of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — no defense hawk herself — to bring a fractious Democratic caucus into line and prevent the amendment’s passage.

With 111 Democrats and 94 Republicans voting for the amendment, the final tally heralded a political marriage of convenience midwifed by Snowden. The amendment, which was co-sponsored by Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, and John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat, would likely have never made it out of the House. But for critics of the NSA and America’s surveillance state, the vote marked the closest anyone has come to seriously curtailing an intelligence agency’s powers in the post-9/11 era. Without Snowden, that would never have happened.

Cooling Transatlantic Trade Talks

In his State of the Union address this year, President Obama announced that he was launching talks for a free trade pact with the European Union. But on the heels of revelations that the NSA has been aggressively spying on European states and their citizens, those talks are now under significant strain. With the United States struggling with sluggish growth and Europe mired in a protracted economic crisis, a trade pact between the two blocs could provide the jolt to jumpstart the two massive economies.

But no one, it seems, really wants to do business with Big Brother. "Our concern is that after the tragedy of 9/11 the U.S. security services may have run amok," Corien Wortmann-Kool, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said in July. "We need to discuss the code of conduct and see that proper oversight is in place." The French government went so far as to say that trade talks should be delayed until the issues surrounding the spying disclosures have been settled, though Germany was none too pleased at the suggestion. In a measure of his newfound influence, Julian Assange was right in the thick of things, egging on the EU to strike back at the NSA and its overlords in Washington. "European Union states, first and foremost France and Germany, should reserve him their warmest welcome," the WikiLeaks founder wrote in an op-ed for the French newspaper Le Monde.

The Enduring Strength of the American Empire

As Edward Snowden scampered from Hawaii to Hong Kong to Moscow, eluding U.S. authorities at every turn, the United States found itself looking rather silly. Here was a young, skinny I.T. administrator bringing deep embarrassment to the most powerful country in the world — and there was little the White House or anyone else could do about it. For the prophets of American decline, the Snowden saga offered yet another example of receding U.S. influence in the world. "However the Snowden episode turns out … what it mainly illustrates is that we are living in an age of American impotence," Bret Stephens wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "The Obama administration has decided it wants out from nettlesome foreign entanglements, and now finds itself surprised that it’s running out of foreign influence."

But even if the Obama administration has been unable to apprehend Snowden, the young NSA leaker forced the United States to flex its muscles – and, in so doing, helped prove just how influential a country America remains. Eager to repair fraying relations with Washington, Beijing washed its hands of the Snowden affair, encouraging him to leave Hong Kong for Moscow. And while Vladimir Putin’s government has now granted Snowden a year-long temporary asylum, it is by no means obvious that the Russian president particularly relishes sheltering Snowden. The former KGB agent offered this choice comment on the benefits of keeping the NSA leaker in Russia: "It’s like shearing a piglet. There’s a lot of squealing and very little wool." Shortly thereafter, America’s European allies forced Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane to land amid rumors that he managed to slip Snowden on board while leaving Moscow. That speculation turned out to be false, but the episode served as a not-so-gentle reminder of which countries in the world still have the ability to ground a presidential jet. Elsewhere in Latin America, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua have offered Snowden asylum — but Ecuador shas not. Ecuador, of course, is harboring Julian Assange in its London embassy and was one of the first countries to speak out in Snowden’s defense. In retaliation, Congress is letting Ecuador’s preferential trade status lapse (not to be outdone, the authorities in Ecuador have renounced the deal, saying they refuse to be intimidated). But since the initial war of words between the two countries, an eerie silence has reigned in Quito (in July, it emerged that Ecuador had signed a $300,000 contract with a top lobbying firm in Washington). Comments by Ecuadorean officials that it would take "months" to decide whether to grant Snowden asylum spoke volumes.

The United States, in other words, still has a lot of weight to throw around in the world – even if those efforts have yet to unmoor Snowden from Moscow.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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