Snowden, Intelligence, and History

As the remarkable case of Edward Snowden has unfolded over the last week, since the former NSA contractor went public by naming himself as the source of The Guardian‘s scoops about US intelligence, I’ve had plenty to say. In addition to my recent op-ed in The Financial Times, I’ve tweeted quite a bit. Since I’ve been on the road the whole time and finishing trying to finish a book, I’ve not blogged about this sensational story until now.

I’ll have more to say about Snowden and this front-page saga – lots more – in due time, but for the moment I want to highlight a few issues that merit attention. In the first place, Snowden’s claim to “whistleblower” status as the defender of US civil liberties has been severely compromised by his mounting efforts to discredit US and UK intelligence with leaks regarding their exploitation of foreign diplomatic communications; so far, in addition to Snowden’s exposure of NSA activities against China, we’ve heard about GCHQ operations against Russia, Turkey, and South Africa, and one must be naive not to think more is coming.

There is no point to this exercise save humiliating London and Washington. These are headlines only because the public seldom hears details of such things until decades later. Historians, however, are well aware that the interception and decryption of diplomatic messages goes back as long as there have been diplomatic messages. Such operations by US intelligence were blown back in 1931, with the publication of Herbert Yardley’s best-seller The American Black Chamber. The public was shocked by his revelations – the scandalous Yardley, easily the most entertaining rogue in the history of American espionage, had headed the Black Chamber from World War I until its sudden closure in 1929, and the book was payback for that – and a few countries changed their codes and ciphers (importantly one of them was Japan), but soon the public moved on. And the US government kept intercepting and decrypting foreign traffic, indeed more and better than ever.

Much the same will happen now, no matter what transpires with young Mr Snowden. From the sanctuary of Hong Kong he will, no doubt, continue to howl gigantic curses at NSA, its partners, and the US government, with the help of his press handlers and perhaps others uncredited. One need not be a counterintelligence veteran, like this author, to expect that his ties to Beijing will grow more obvious as well. His activities will be scandalous, highly illegal, and will cost US and UK taxpayers countless sums to compensate for the expensive SIGINT programs he has compromised – to say nothing of the lost intelligence value.

It is significant that Snowden’s leaks have demolished the mounting US-led campaign to hold Beijing accountable for its vast global cyberespionage and hacking efforts against governments and private firms in dozens of countries (the conspiratorial among us may wonder if this was Ed’s utility to Beijing from the start). Yet the protests from Beijing, Moscow, and Ankara today feigning outrage that NSA and GCHQ dare to spy on them need not be taken too seriously, since they do the same, every day.

What NSA and its partners do is done by the intelligence services of all reasonably advanced countries. One of the strange and discomforting things about the current Snowden sensation, at least to this historically-minded ex-spook, is the specter of a younger generation that finds any espionage intrinsically illegitimate and immoral. Here we have the fusing of techno-utopianism and an Assange-like belief that any state secrecy  is unacceptable: in all, a strange brew of naivete and nihilism.

The historical truth, of course, is that states have been performing espionage as long as there have been anything like states; it’s not called the Second Oldest Profession for nothing. States have regarded espionage – running and catching spies, intercepting other states’ messages while protecting your own – as core state business for millennia, long before anybody thought states should provide education, pensions, health care, or even police. Espionage is not going away anytime soon.

Ed Snowden has brought attention to issues of domestic surveillance that, as readers of this blog will know, I’ve advocated for some time. Having witnessed DNI Clapper and DIRNSA Alexander at best flub answers to critical questions before Congress, it’s clear that major scrutiny is coming, and ought to. Regrettably Snowden’s activities, which every day make him less a whistleblower and more a traitor and possible defector, not least because from his Chinese perch he seems to object to US surveillance not surveillance per se, may actually detract from that important and necessary debate.

Citizens in all countries ought to hold their governments accountable regarding domestic intelligence activities, which should be regulated by laws and monitored through oversight. But campaigning to abolish espionage altogether indicates a lack of seriousness about weighty matters of statecraft and secrecy that demand rigor and the utmost seriousness.

Watch this space, much more is coming ….



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