No Hero

Jeff Toobin takes Edward Snowden down a few notches. Money quote:

These were legally authorized programs; in the case of Verizon Business’s phone records, Snowden certainly knew this, because he leaked the very court order that approved the continuation of the project. So he wasn’t blowing the whistle on anything illegal; he was exposing something that failed to meet his own standards of propriety. The question, of course, is whether the government can function when all of its employees (and contractors) can take it upon themselves to sabotage the programs they don’t like. That’s what Snowden has done.

Enter The Media Martyr, Ctd

A reader adds to this post:

I spent a decade as a government IT contractor and another five years in commercial IT contracting (which I’m back to).  Over the course of my government time I was basically in the same job, but as contracts rebid or companies merged or whatever, I worked directly or indirectly for four different companies.  It’s entirely possible that Snowden was in the job prior to March but under a different lead or sub contracting company.  The relevant question isn’t when did he start at Booz, since that’s really just a paperwork and billing question, but rather when did he start on site.


Your reader’s suggestion is to call the Ethics Hotline maintained by the NSA? That’s unrealistic to the point of being laughable – what conceivable effect would that have (aside from costing Snowden his job without publicizing the program)? As for the idea that he work with members of Congress, it’s just as silly.  Remember, Wyden and Udall were deeply troubled by the program, but couldn’t say anything because they didn’t want to release classified information.  The only way that this program comes into the public eye is for a hero like Snowden to take the hit and alert everyone.  It seems to be legal, so there’s no crime to report; and yet it’s nevertheless causing a huge public outcry.  The case for leaking this material couldn’t be clearer, and I applaud Snowden for his brave act of civil disobedience.

Huge public outcry? We’ll see. But the debate itself and the end of secrecy around this program are healthy developments, it seems to me. Meanwhile, Noam Scheiber compares the missions of Edward Snowden and Aaron Swartz:

Both Snowden and Swartz (and, for that matter Manning) were precociously talented computer programmers who were frustrated in classroom settings—neither completed high school or college—but easily assimilated knowledge on their own. Both had strong moral and idealistic streaks, along with (apparently) well-worked out, libertarian-ish, ideas about the proper relationship of government to its citizens. Both had high hopes for Barack Obama, but became disillusioned with his administration relatively quickly.

And yet both come off as basically liberal in their outlook, as opposed to anarchist or some other form of radical. Snowden told The Guardian there was a key difference between himself and Manning: “There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is.” (Manning observed no such restraints.) Swartz, according to several friends I interviewed for this profile, likewise believed that Wikileaks went too far in releasing information that could do more harm than good. He worried that the group had become an exercise in showmanship and preening.

Now, clearly, there are key differences between Snowden and Swartz. Even though Swartz was facing the prospect of decades in prison, the act that got him in trouble couldn’t have been more than a minor offense under any rational legal code. (JSTOR articles are available to anyone with access to a university or research library; JSTOR itself declined to pursue the case.) By contrast, it’s obvious that Snowden, whether you agree or disagree with his decision to distribute classified material, has undertaken something of enormous legal consequence.

The Dish On The Leaks

A mid-day round-up of today’s coverage: my view is basically David Simon’s – that a lot of this is bullshit – but that’s clearly not how many readers Water_drop_animation_enhanced_smallsee this issue. Au contraire.

More Dish fodder: a post where I hope this is an opportunity to debate if we still need a serious counter-terrorism policy at all; a reader wonders about whether Snowden sought the Booz-Allen job in order to leak; a granular primer on what PRISM actually is; the foolishness of Snowden’s seeking refuge in Hong Kong – or perhaps not; and the inherent difficulty of a full public debate about programs that are labeled secret.

Stay tuned.

Yglesias Award Nominee

“National security is different from internal matters of the government. We’re dealing with foreign threats here. They’re not allowed to go into that data until they have a warrant signed off on by a judge. That is totally different from the IRS abuses, which I think are very serious, and I think it’s very important for conservatives and Republicans to make that distinction,” – Bill Kristol, agreeing with me and Josh Marshall (on PRISM anyway). And, er, yes, gulp.

Quis Custodiet … ?

Obama says that the NSA isn’t listening to your calls:

But Conor worries that our system of checks and balances is useless in the era of deep state:

Congress cannot act as a check on the executive branch in the way the Framers intended when hugely consequential policies it is overseeing are treated as state secrets. The Senate, intended as a deliberative body, cannot deliberate when only the folks on the right committees are fully briefed, and the Ron Wyden types among them think what’s happening is horribly wrong, but can’t tell anyone why because it’s illegal just to air the basic facts. Our senators have literally been reduced to giving dark hints.

Walt believes this situation “gives those in power an obvious incentive to inflate threats”:

When no significant dangers are apparent, they will conjure them up; when real dangers do emerge, they will blow them out of all proportion. And having assembled a vast clandestine intelligence apparatus to go trolling for threats in every conceivable location, they can quell skeptics with that familiar trump card: “Ah, but if you knew what I know, you’d agree with me.”

And so the circle continues: An exaggerated sense of threat leads to energetic efforts to shape events abroad, even in places of little strategic value. These efforts inevitably provoke backlashes of various kinds, some of which (e.g., 9/11) do genuinely harm Americans. Because it is deemed unpatriotic or worse to even ask what might have led others to want to attack us, officials merely declare that they “hate our freedoms” and launch new efforts to root out enemies. The result is more surveillance, more secrecy, and even more global intervention (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan, drone wars, etc.) in an endless attempt to root out all sources of “evil.”

Reihan is conflicted about the expanding powers of the NSA:

I have two clashing instincts: a skepticism of concentrated power (milder than most of my libertarian friends, but still there) and a post-9/11 sense that small networks of hyperempowered individuals can pose a real threat, and that it is appropriate to use technological tools to mitigate such threats. The problem with the latter view, which has definitely been going out of style in the public if not in the national security bureaucracy, is that when the bad guys realize that mobile phones are not the best way to go (as the more formidable of them have long since realized), they will turn to some other, harder-to-detect means of communication. It is inevitable that the NSA will want as much information as it can possibly get, and I’m glad that they’re getting some pushback.

That’s roughly where I fall out too. And Mike Konczal imagines a better surveillance state:

What would a democratic surveillance state look like? Balkin argues that these states would be “information gourmets and information philanthropists.” A democratic surveillance state would limit the data it collects to the bare minimum. Meanwhile, maximum transparency and accountability across branches would be emphasized. Congress and the public would need to be far more involved.

A democratic surveillance state would also place an emphasis on destroying the data that the government collects. Amnesia used to be the first line of defense against surveillance. People just forgot things with time, giving citizens a line of defense against intrusion. In the age of digital technology, however, amnesia no longer exists, so it needs to be mandated by law.

A democratic surveillance state would also require public accountability for the proper conduct of private companies that deal and sell in private information. It’s easy for people to be cynical about not being able to control their privacy when it comes to the government when they also feel powerless against private agents as well.

Which Leaks Matter?

Ben Wittes and Robert Chesney explain why it’s a mistake to conflate the recent leaks about PRISM and Verizon:

At a high-level of abstraction, it does make some sense to lump these stories together. They both concern the tension between privacy and the need to collect intelligence in the context of evolving technologies—and the leaks, of course, came from the same source. But at another level, conflating these two stories is a big mistake. They are by no means of equal weight and importance when it comes to informing the public about the government’s data-collection and monitoring powers. The Post story actually tells us little we did not already know—other than operational details that may prove of considerable use to those seeking to avoid NSA surveillance. By contrast, the Guardian story reveals a genuinely surprising and significant government legal position—albeit one apparently accepted by the FISA Court and congressional oversight leaders for a number of years—with important implications for the future of big data in government collection, surveillance, and intelligence authorities. …

These fleeting glimpses into the shadow worlds of counterterrorism, counterespionage, and counterproliferation are not always a bad thing. Sometimes, they prompt needed debate; even the White House has said that the president “welcomes the discussion of the trade-off between security and civil liberties” that the Verizon disclosure will produce. Some secret activities may be especially unwise or even illegal, so the proper amount of leaking in a healthy democracy is surely not zero. But it is equally true that, in some cases, exposure of classified information achieves little, while risking much. Snowden’s disclosures so far offer vivid examples of both the good and the bad of national security oversight by individual acts of civil disobedience.