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Snowden Shakes Up Washington

NSA revelations are challenging preconceptions of whistleblowing and journalism.
Snowden capitol dome

Activists all over the world are calling Edward Snowden, the man who leaked thousands of classified intelligence documents to journalists before fleeing the country last June, a hero. Meanwhile, the revelations spawned by these leaks are changing the way lawmakers and individuals consider reasonable search and surveillance in a post-9/11 world.

The Snowden affair is also changing the very face of journalism: along with Barton Gelman at the Washington Post, civil libertarian blogger Glenn Greenwald and human rights documentarian Laura Poitras broke Snowden’s leaks through a series of articles in The Guardian. The paper hasn’t suffered—and neither have Greenwald and Poitras. Last month, it was announced that they would be launching a new online news enterprise on their own terms, “holding the most powerful factions accountable, fearlessly,” with $250 million in support from billionaire entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar.

But as protesters wave “Thank You Edward Snowden” signs and members of Congress sponsor bills that would cut off funding for National Security Agency programs, some voices otherwise inclined to governmental criticism are saying that Snowden and his journalistic collaborators have “gone too far.” In fact, critics charge, they are doing more damage to the country than we think.

In a piece for The National Interest entitled “Don’t Surrender to the Leakers,” Paul Pillar, a former CIA analyst and National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia during the early years of the Iraq War, said “the damage from the leaks, to U.S. foreign police, and U.S. national interests, mounts with each dribble, and the amount and variety of the damage are sweeping.”

The most recent, he noted, was the wave of backlash from the international community—most notably in France, Spain, and Germany—reacting to evidence based on Snowden’s leaks that the U.S. has been tapping offices, hacking into computers, collecting metadata, and monitoring the phone calls of some 35 world leaders, even compromising German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone. The leaks, and the corresponding sensational media response, have called into question every single surveillance program by the U.S. government, whether legitimate or not, Pillar said.

“To the extent there are important decisions to be made and balances to be struck between things like personal privacy and what government agencies do in the name of national security, speaking as one citizen, I would not want to leave those decisions to the likes of Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden,” Pillar said in a recent interview with TAC.

Pillar, a Vietnam War veteran who drew praise from war critics in 2006 for writing in Foreign Affairs that the Bush Administration had cherry-picked intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq, says that Snowden is a criminal and should be treated thusly. Furthermore, he calls Greenwald an “activist who is masquerading as a journalist,” who “cleverly” shifted the conversation from NSA overreach against American citizens to foreign espionage, which is a legitimate—and necessary—national security tool.

As a result, the President, the intelligence community, and Congress are all pointing fingers at each other about who knew what and when; President Obama has already vowed to review—and perhaps ban—spying on friendly heads of state. Pillar and others who spoke to TAC say everyone, including the Germans, knew widespread spying was going on. It was the exposure that forced them to respond with outrage and that could lead to serious diplomatic strife—already the affected counties are demanding a “no spy” pact and reports indicate the flap could complicate pending U.S.-Europe trade talks.

“None of this damage is due to the NSA programs that are the subject of the leaks. All of the damage comes from the leaks themselves,” Pillar wrote.

“The fact that the U.S. is being uniquely exposed is what makes this stuff really, really damaging,” says national security writer Joshua Foust, who emerged as one of Greenwald’s most dogged online critics after the Snowden leaks were made public in May. He has criticized Greenwald’s methods, which he attacks as riddled “with errors and misreporting,” and now, he says, are putting proper intelligence gathering at risk.

“By going after our main intelligence operations it is denying them a legitimate tool to go after hostile governments and their activities,” he asserts. “The whole thing is revealing this naïveté of how the world works and how countries interact with each other.”

Tom Drake was an early NSA whistleblower whose disclosures led to a federal smear campaign against him, a felony indictment (charges eventually dropped), and the loss of his security credentials along with his senior executive-level career with the government. He says Pillar and Foust are “blaming the messenger”—a coy way of diverting attention from the metastasizing and constitutionally questionable national security state.

Drake called the idea that all “legitimate” intelligence is now at risk “a fear straw man for which there is no direct evidence.”

“It’s part of the zero-sum game they are playing,” he told TAC, “it’s all or nothing.” In other words, the American people must eat the rotten fruit or else the entire basket gets tossed in the trash.

“Under the guise of a legitimate threat, (intelligence) was expanded to include everything else,” including economic espionage, he tells TAC. Snowden’s leaks have documented how that expansion led to an unprecedented and possibly illegal data mining operation of American phone, email, and social media records, along with those of millions of people overseas.

And people in the government and their surrogates in the media, “just want to say, ‘there’s nothing to see here, move along, there’s nothing new, everybody does it.”

“This goes way beyond traditional intelligence, this is surveillance because we can. We’re addicted to it,” Drake says. “I was there at the very beginning of these so-called surveillance programs before anyone knew anything…the government was completely unchained from the Constitution. That was the excuse—though this was never said out loud—that you had to violate the law in order to get access to everything because you never know when you might need it. This stuff eventually does come out.”

For other critics who spoke to TAC—some of them academics, retired-CIA, or ex-military—their inclination to view Snowden and Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning as criminals is tempered with concerns that what the government is doing is unconstitutional, and that however Snowden and Manning could have better gone about making their disclosures, it is better that the public know about them.

“A key question is whether the government is pursuing policies that are ‘constitutional.’ I use the term not to mean policies able to withstand court challenge, but policies that are consistent with the purposes and aspirations stated in the Preamble,” offered Andrew Bacevich, author and professor of international relations at Boston University.

“If government policies meet that standard, then I’d say that revealing state secrets, thereby undermining the state’s ability to implement policies essential to our wellbeing, could arguably be considered a criminal act,” he told TAC in an email.

“But if government policies do not meet that standard, then revealing state secrets might be considered an act of patriotism,” he concluded.

“Have (Snowden and Manning’s) revelations been severely damaging to U.S. national interests? Unquestionably yes. How can any honest person decline to acknowledge that?” said Ray Close, who served as a CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia during the 1970s.

However, he told TAC, “those revelations are indeed shocking, exposing seriously misguided policies and practices pursued at the highest levels of the administration and throughout the broad intelligence community. Will the revelations result eventually in many very necessary and beneficial changes in the management as well as (most importantly) the culture surrounding and governing the way intelligence is collected, evaluated and then utilized…? Hopefully, yes.”

Pillar and Foust both call Snowden a “traitor,” and argue that, unlike some of its foreign counterparts, the U.S. intelligence community works under Congressional oversight. They argue that those oversight channels could have been utilized instead of Snowden downloading tens of thousands of classified documents and handing them over to reporters sympathetic to WikiLeaks and the more radical open information movement.

“I totally agree with the ACLU and the EFF (Electronic Freedom Foundation) suing the NSA—our system is based on challenging (government). Put the programs under scrutiny, see if they hold up,” explains Foust. “Snowden did start a conversation which hadn’t occurred before because people did not genuinely care. He could have started that conversation without taking these documents to China and Russia and leaking them.”

The counter-argument to that, of course, is reflected in the experience of so many government whistleblowers, including Drake and his colleagues, who made many attempts at working through “proper channels” before going to the press. Diane Roark, who served on the House Intelligence Committee staff in the years after 9/11 and tried early on to take the issue of warrantless wiretapping of Americans to her bosses, hit a brick wall and was even raided and investigated by the FBI for her trouble.

Some say that if Congress had actually listened to the early whistleblowers and engaged in the oversight responsibilities they’re tasked with, we might not be having this conversation today. There would be no Snowden to persecute, nor a parade of European leaders ready to take a torch to years of diplomatic relations.

“(Snowden) did open up a can of worms not just with respect to the constitutional and legal limits of secret intelligence, he also exposed a Congress that has fallen down on its primary job of effective oversight of the executive branch,” says Mike Lofgren, who retired in 2012 after spending 30 years working as on congressional committee staffs.

Even today some of the proposed corrective legislation, like the one Sen. Dianne Feinstein has announced to “curb” the NSA domestic metadata collection, is being viewed as a fake fix.

But that is where the balance comes in, says Pillar, who warns about “fixes” going too far.

“Everything you’re hearing about the so-called NSA scandal is gong to be gone the next time there is an intelligence failure or what is perceived as an intelligence failure, and there will be all kind of questions and incriminations raised in congress as to why our intelligence community wasn’t more aggressive.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.