Edward Snowden and secret intelligence

It was last Wednesday, our first afternoon in Berlin. Struggling to stay awake against the effects of losing a night’s sleep by flying across the Atlantic, we found a peaceful cafe with outdoor seating along the banks of the Spree River right in the heart of Berlin for a late lunch. Once our 40-something waitress determined we were American, she became quite talkative, explaining that she had spent time in Florida doing winter waitressing jobs and asking where we were from. When we had finished eating, she approached the table to begin clearing and asked “May I ask you a political question?” Anticipating something about the President, the economy, maybe health care we invited her inquiry. “What do you think about Edward Snowden.” I almost blurted out “Who?” but how could I not be aware of America’s most recent traitor or patriot, depending on one’s point of view.

Roxane (my wife and traveling companion) and I answered simultaneously and similarly: neither of us were all that concerned by his revelations since we assumed the government was conducting that type of surveillance anyway. (By way of background, when we first met back in the early 1980s, Roxane and I were both serving in US Army intelligence units in Germany that were doing the kind of electronic intelligence gathering that we’re still not supposed to talk about). We asked the waitress what she and others in Germany thought of Snowden. “He is a great hero” was her reply although she seemed a bit disappointed by our lack of concern (not all that disappointed though because when she spotted us back at the cafe on our final night in Berlin, she rushed over and greeted us like long-lost friends).

In retrospect, our Berlin waitress’s celebration of Snowden’s disclosures should not have been surprising. She lives in a country, after all, that is just two decades removed from two successive regimes that elevated spying on their own citizens to levels unimaginable to us. And running afoul of the government meant death in the case of the Nazis and prison terms and loss of economic security under the Communists.

So what exactly was it that Edward Snowden disclosed? As I understand it, he revealed that the National Security Agency is tracking all conversations, voice, video and typed, made by everyone, everywhere. They’re not monitoring the content of the communications (although they have that capability). They are monitoring who is talking with whom. If you make frequent phone calls to someone in Pakistan, they make note of that. And if the person at the other end is a suspected terrorist, they will note who else you are talking to here in the US. They may even request a warrant from a Federal court for permission to see what it is you are saying to these others. If you are just calling Espresso Pizza to order a large pepperoni for pick-up, they won’t pay attention to that.

While I’m concerned about this process, I’m not outraged by it. I greatly value the protections provided to us by the Constitution, but the Constitution is a living document that has to evolve as society evolves. The means of communication available to us today are flexible and ubiquitous and have greatly improved our quality of life. But they’ve also made it easier for bad guys to avoid detection. Not that we needed a reminder of the effects of a terrorist attack, but we sure received one with the Boston Marathon bombing. Communications surveillance didn’t stop that one; but I suspect it has stopped others. To me, that counts for a lot as does the fact that this program is overseen by all three branches of our government. Show me an actual instance where the information has been abused and I’ll be more concerned. For now, the practical benefits outweigh the threat of theoretical abuses. Besides, as I am eerily reminded every time a targeted ad pops up in my internet browser, corporate America is already monitoring our every online move in the name of capitalism without a lot of showings of outrage; why shouldn’t we tolerate the government doing the same to protect us from terrorists?

As for Snowden, until I see evidence of actual abuses of this information, I don’t see him as a hero. Traitor is too strong and inaccurate a word to use to describe him. Suffice it to say that he has probably done grave damage to our ability to detect and prevent terrorist attacks. What I’ve written above is based on a very general understanding of the program involved. Snowden disclosed many details both substantive and technical. Electronic intelligence is a precarious commodity. As soon as the bad guy realizes you are able to monitor his communications, he can easily change the means of communicating and cut off your information flow. That’s why the product of these programs and the very existence of these programs is so highly classified. I may not have scrutinized the details of what was disclosed by Snowden, but I am certain the bad guys did.

One Response to Edward Snowden and secret intelligence

  1. Linda Copp says:

    I am surprised that so, many people are shocked about the NSA surveillance program being this comprehensive. I, myself, feel no sense of privacy anywhere, at any time, save my own home and even then, that security depends upon who is with you at any given time. Every guest has the potential to violet your privacy by use of the video on a phone or the telling of a tale carried from the home site. Companies track our movements daily in stores or on the internet, data mining and marketing to that data. It is all around us and we do not raise much resistance to it, save a whimper.
    That said, I never approved of the Patriot Act, nor of the incorporation of all our independent agencies into one huge, conglomerate, Homeland Security. The ultimate good to come of this was to be Safety, Security and many may argue that goal has been achieved. However, at the expense of how many checks and balances? The American people acquienced to this surveillance because they believed only the bad guys would suffer and we would be saved from their evil intentions. The Patriot Act was always ripe to me for abuse by leaders at one time or another who would want to thwart protest and seek to silence it with the implied, if not actual, threat of surveillance and persecution. The Patriot Act was created at a time when protest to government policies was considered by many as Unpatriotic or ‘UnAmerican and challengers seemed to suffer the condemnation of the nation with dire consequences following either economically or politically. No doubt my concerns about the abuse of power possible were exacerbated by this, as well. Still, I felt and still feel where the majority of Americans seemed willing to agree to this for the safety of not only themselves but their children, then their need to feel safe, superceded mine to question the erosion of my freedom. However, I am not outraged nor surprised at the level of surveillance being done. My outrage is that this surveillance is not being carried out by Homeland Security, itself. Private companies are conducting this surveillance to the tune of millions of dollars. I am totally opposed to this and it should be stopped. Let us hire our vets and train them to do this work if necessary. The problem here is that too many civilians like Snowden are in a postion to monitor too many, at all levels and this situation is ripe for abuse. Especially, when the parameters of attaining these jobs has such a low bar of acceptibility. Too many, know too much and are being paid too much to do it.
    My view of Snowden is this, when I meet someone, for the first time, words immediately jump out and write themselves down on the blackboard of my mind. These words, later most, usually turn out to aptly describe some presiding factor of that persons character. When I first saw Snowden, the word that jumped out was ‘TWIT’ and then, Not Formed. As I have gleaned more information about Snowden’s actions before his leaking this story to the Guardian, it seems he was a troubled fellow, a bit disgrunteld, who held the opposite views on surveillance than he does today. I am still reflecting on the definition of TWIT, but Not Formed was pretty accurate. I read it now, to mean immature and Twit to me, for the moment means, not of consequence. While what Snowden did is of consequence, great consequence, he, himself as an individual, is not of much consequence, at least to me. He is a boy struggling to become a man, he is in flux. I neither see him as a Hero nor a Traitor. I do not know if he has anything concrete to offer our enemies so, I will wait on that charge, Treason. I believe Snowden was seeking relevancy more than he was seeking justice for we the people. Just my thoughts on Snowden for the moment.