June 24, 2013

Beyond the Snowden Endgame

Barring dramatic revelations that would be out of character with the data released by Edward Snowden so far, it now seems possible -- with a minimum of emotion and a maximum of logic -- to foretell the Snowden endgame, and the ultimate results of this entire saga.

Especially as Snowden has increasingly flirted with countries whose human rights and free speech records are overall and en masse vastly inferior to that of the U.S., many of his early vocal supporters have suggested that the focus on Snowden himself is inappropriate, and that we should be concentrating much more on the value of the information he has released.

I agree, especially since Snowden's fate in fact will likely fall into one of four outcomes. He'll either be returned to the U.S. now -- or not. Or he'll be returned to the U.S. later -- or not. The first two possibilities represent a quite constrained set that we'll likely understand within hours or days. The latter two reach forward potentially for many years, and will vary with changes in the geopolitical situation that are impossible to predict today.

All of this will be of most importance to Snowden himself -- the rest of us are bystanders in comparison, even given the fact that Snowden's chosen methodology to release this data -- complete with dramatic personal interviews -- guaranteed that he'd be the center of attention.

So Snowden won't be mentioned again in this posting.

In terms of information released and both domestic and international effects, the analysis is remarkably straightforward -- again, based on what we know to date.

Despite some Congressional dissembling for political purposes now, it seems likely that everything revealed will be found to be legal under U.S. law as authorized by PATRIOT and other legislation, some of which reaches back far earlier than 9/11.

The newer programs were all contemplated by and authorized by Congress, in many cases enthusiastically. Other issues, such as communications cable tapping, Internet Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), and other surveillance techniques -- including militarized cyberattack functions -- have long been known as practiced by all the major powers east and west, and probably by quite a few "smaller" powers as well. "Spy vs. Spy."

So from the current vantage point at least, it appears that the actual value of the information was minimal to zero in terms of actual intelligence assets or tradecraft knowledge, and that its direct national security implications are in reality very low.

However, since this entire exercise has been much akin to pouring gasoline on a smoldering fire, there are and will continue to be major impacts nonetheless.

Exaggerations (e.g., related to the so-called PRISM project) -- which have already become oft-repeated memes associated with this saga -- have done significant damage to Web firms who have been falsely accused of massive collusion with NSA. The accusations are ludicrous and illogical, but play into the hands of conspiracy buffs and tinfoil hat aficionados around the world.

The U.S. government has so far refused to allow these firms to transparently reveal the actual ranges of national security requests made by the feds. And since it's generally considered impossible to prove a negative, this leaves the firms in much the position of the fellow faced with responding to a rigged question like, "When did you stop beating your wife?"

Beyond this, most of the effects are largely political, with complex politically-driven ramifications.

Domestically, new opportunities have been created for conventional political attacks, such as by strong supporters of these programs under Bush who now have the opportunity to condemn the same programs under Obama. Ironically, these are many of the same people who condemned us as "un-American" when we warned about the dangers of these programs during PATRIOT's genesis.

An opportunity has also been created for today's supporters of these programs to become even more entrenched, and demand even tougher measures and security, using the current situation as the justification -- and by trotting out all sorts of purported examples of where these programs supposedly stopped "terror" attacks as variously and expansively defined.

In the international arena, these events have provided a new opportunity for countries with notoriously poor human rights records -- vast censorship regimes and media controls, blasphemy prosecutions, enormous secret trial apparatuses and much more -- to condemn the U.S. and further suppress their own internal dissent.

And that, my friends, is the situation in a nutshell. We may see some very minor short-term movement to at least theoretically reign in a bit of the vast surveillance overreaches here (though other countries will likely continue their own massive surveillance efforts as before). But the history of this space over the last half century and more shows such reforms to have little if any staying power, and a single new attack on American soil could be seized on as an excuse for an even deeper and more pervasive surveillance regime.

If you've come to the conclusion that my overall sense of these events is that they'll end up doing more damage to freedom than good -- you'd unfortunately be correct.

In the long run, I suspect they will result in more deeply buried and impenetrable surveillance empires -- both in the U.S. and around the world -- and a determined sense by their proponents that in the future, the relative transparency we had this time around would be banished forever.

In the short run, we may see some small victories -- like Web firms being permitted by the government to more effectively defend themselves against false accusations, and perhaps a bit more transparency related to the court actions that enable and (at least in theory) monitor these programs.

But beyond that, while hope springs eternal, logic suggests that prospects for the masters of surveillance around the world have not been significantly dimmed, and in fact may have actually obtained a longer-term boost.

Sorry about that, chief.

Take care, all.


Posted by Lauren at June 24, 2013 12:50 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein