June 13, 2013

Why Edward Snowden May Be the Wackos' Dream Come True

NSA leaker/whistleblower Edward Snowden may yet have some real "bombshells" to divulge, but at least for the moment it seems possible pull back our vantage point a bit, and start thinking about the likely results of what he's done so far. Be warned, you may not enjoy this analysis very much.

It's clear what he's done to his own life. From this point forward into the foreseeable future, he'll be on the run, in exile, or in prison. To hear administration, congressional, and other officials foaming at the mouth about the supposedly enormous damage he's done to USA national security, it's obvious they want to lock him up and throw away the key (we can discard the "they're gonna kill him with drones" ravings of Ron Paul, however).

The fact is that -- based on what we know so far -- Snowden has done little if any real damage, because his "revelations" have been so relatively inconsequential for anyone who has been paying attention.

Comparisons are frequently being made with Bradley Manning, but they are mostly inappropriate. Manning was a "data dumper" -- he basically grabbed all the classified materials he could get his hands on and sent them off to a third party. This included an enormous cache of detailed operational data. I won't argue here the intricacies of his case, other than to note that it's entirely different from Snowden's, except for the foundational fact that they both obviously did violate information secrecy laws associated with their clearances, which can carry very significant penalties even on a standalone basis.

In contrast, Snowden (at least so far) hasn't released any specific operational data, only rather broad outlines (largely without context, and in some key respects subject to misinterpretation) about NSA programs that -- and this is the important part -- NSA watchers (and presumably our adversaries) have long surmised existed. And Snowden himself has muddied the picture by adding what are clearly embellishments and exaggerations to some of his stories, for motives known only to himself.

Anyone who has followed the history of NSA, particularly since the PATRIOT Act, but even long before, would have assumed that telephone metadata records were easily available to NSA for analysis. Remember, these are the same records that the phone companies have been treating as a profit center -- selling to third parties for commercial purposes -- for many years! To assume the government couldn't get their hands on them -- when fly-by-night solicitation companies could -- would be nonsensical. Confirmation is interesting, but hardly revelatory.

Other parts of his information are even less surprising. We already knew that FISA/NSL data requests/demands are routinely made of Web service providers. We could assume NSA maintains massive, advanced databases of metadata and other information. It's long been obvious that the U.S. engaged in offensive as well as defensive "cyberwar" operations, in the finest tradition of "Spy vs. Spy."

The ostensibly most alarming parts of Snowden's "revelations" are where he obviously is -- let's be charitable in our choice of terminology -- exaggerating.

There is no believable evidence to suggest that he had the wiretapping and email spying capabilities (or authority) that he has claimed. In fact, such capabilities simply do not exist in the form he described. There are technical as well as policy reasons to be quite confident about this.

Similarly unsupportable on technical and policy grounds are suggestions that NSA or other outside entities have direct access to rummage around on fishing expeditions in Google, Facebook, or other major Web service company servers. Even if you bizarrely and with notable paranoia buy into discredited "they're all evil" conspiracy theories and want to assume that statements denying the existence of such programs are outright lies, there's simply no practical way the necessary engineering could have been accomplished and kept secret, and mass resignations would have been obvious at these firms had word of such projects leaked internally (as would be inevitable).

Sticking with the facts that make sense (and not the paranoid ramblings) it still wouldn't be fair to say that Snowden hasn't moved the ball. He has indeed gotten the issues back into public discourse again, where they have long been largely ignored. Unfortunately, even this may not have the results that might be hoped.

The logical, confirmable facts about NSA and other surveillance are bad enough. Articles and postings condemning them (including my own) are appropriate, but mostly could have been written two weeks ago (before most of us had heard of Snowden) or even anytime since the passage of PATRIOT -- or even earlier. And in fact, such essays have indeed been written, all along. Snowden's "revelations" have added little of overall note, relatively.

The history of surveillance and intelligence in this country has long been one of constant oscillation. There are abuses revealed and Congress cracks down a bit, but over time this lightens up, and the pendulum swings the other way again. Over and over.

In today's situation, there will be hemming and hawing, and perhaps a bit more transparency for a while. Unrelated to Snowden, a court decision suggests that we may be able to learn more about the rationale behind some FISA court decisions. We can hope that DOJ allows Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others to report aggregate data and scope information about FISA requests, as these firms have requested.

But it's already obvious that NSA and the administration are going to stand behind their "these programs are critical to stopping terrorists" mantra, and will trot out just enough information (without sufficient details to understand if these events would have been thwarted without expansive access to phone metadata, for example) to keep their co-opted Congress on their side.

In the end, especially in the long run, little will change. And given one major (or perhaps even minor) new successful terrorist attack, you can bet that we will move backwards in terms of civil liberties at an enormous rate, even though this will not stop terrorism, and will help the terrorists succeed in destroying our country's greatest ideals from within.

In the meantime, conspiratorial wackos and political opportunists are thrilled with Snowden. They are spinning his information -- particularly his unsupportable exaggerations that play into their preexisting mindsets, to their full advantage.

One need only look at a single video to get an idea of how this is playing out in the political sphere -- this sickly amusing compilation of FOX News' Sean Hannity vigorously praising the same PATRIOT/NSA surveillance programs under Bush that he is now condemning under Obama.

And herein, unfortunately, may be Snowden's ultimate, most apparent long-range effect -- providing fuel for the conspiracy theorists and most hypocritically dangerous of politicians and their minions.

We can reasonably assume that this was not Snowden's intention.

It may, however, turn out to be his legacy.


Posted by Lauren at June 13, 2013 10:54 AM | Permalink
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