The United States is in the middle of a healthy discussion of two crucial intelligence issues: whether the National Security Agency’s breathtaking surveillance capability is threatening American civil liberties, and how to protect genuine state secrets.
Edward Snowden deserves credit for triggering that discussion, but it’s the kind of credit George Zimmerman deserves for pulling the scab off America’s festering racial wounds. Some good can come from even the most idiotic actions, but that doesn’t make the actions less idiotic – and doesn’t mean the good consequences outweigh the bad.
Snowden did not have to convey the digital files he stole from the NSA to WikiLeaks and other people hostile to the United States. He could instead have sent them to select federal judges or lawmakers – such as Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon – who’ve been concerned about the NSA’s monitoring of global digital communications.
As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wyden might have used the data to challenge the Obama administration’s surveillance practices. But someone in his position would not have taken a wrecking ball to U.S. espionage in the process.
Snowden did exactly that. Exhibit A is a newly surfaced document he stole that details the agency’s success in placing key-stroke recording software on servers in the Middle East, China, Russia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
The X-Keyscore program, as it’s called, gave U.S. intelligence the potential to capture confidential communications inside anti-American regimes. You can bet the secretly placed software is now rapidly being scrubbed from those servers. It takes considerable hostility toward the United States to cheer that development.
Both the Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden cases reflect the American knack for reducing grave and complex events into cheap personal melodrama.
Media coverage notwithstanding, their prosecution or punishment is not particularly important in the scheme of things. It’s no big deal that Putin’s government gave asylum to Snowden last week. That’s Russia being its usual oppositional-defiant self; the Kremlin has no interest in Snowden as an individual.
What does matter is that arrogant munchkins like Manning and Snowden had such free access to top-secret documents. Their penetration of intelligence firewalls was a catastrophic security failure that has harmed American interests and probably imperiled lives.
Congress is rightly debating whether the NSA’s tracking of domestic telecommunications has become too sweeping. The review may lead to beneficial limits on the agency’s operations within the United States.
But the NSA’s ability to track the intentions of China or Russia should never have been compromised. Reforming American espionage and crippling it are two different things.