Tinker, Tailor, Whistleblower... Spy?
Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor and so-called whistleblower who leaked classified information on numerous top-secret NSA surveillance programs, is the most damaging traitor in U.S. history. That’s a pretty incendiary statement, especially considering the legions of overnight devotees—marquee name-plates, political heavyweights and Average Joe Six-Packs from both sides of the partisan equation—who have turned Mr. Snowden into a post-cyberpunk cause célèbre, media darling, and “hero” of individual freedom. Mr. Snowden’s actions, however, could prove more damaging than those of traditional double agents such as Edward Lee Howard, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. On par perhaps with the most damaging spy of the entire Cold War—Kim Philby, the senior British intelligence officer and KGB mole who defected to the USSR, where he died as a Hero of the Soviet Union.
That Mr. Snowden committed a flagrant breach of national security is without question. The non-disclosures attached to his clearances and to which he was a signatory make that blatantly clear. The real question, then, is whether or not that breach was warranted in the name of a greater moral good, namely uncovering illegal government activity that violates the Constitution of the United States and threatens the rights of the American people.
Daniel Ellsberg, who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers, has declared Mr. Snowden the most important whistleblower in U.S. history. But Mr. Snowden doesn’t fit the traditional whistleblower profile. Ellsberg himself never fled the United States, but voluntarily stood trial on charges of espionage, which were dismissed. Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army soldier who dumped a truckload of classified material into the lap of Wikileaks, is now facing a military court martial, and has already pled guilty to 10 of the 22 charges brought against him. Frank Serpico, the New York police detective who famously blew the lid off widespread corruption within the NYPD, not only exhausted every proper channel open to him before going to the press, but stayed on the job and took a bullet thereafter.
Mr. Snowden, on the other hand, fled to—of all places—Hong Kong, which, of course, is in the People’s Republic of China, hardly a bastion of the electronic freedom for which Mr. Snowden claims to have martyred himself. The PRC runs one of the most restrictive and intrusive internet regimes in the world—and not as part of a targeted effort to snare suspected terrorists, but in a blanket campaign to suppress the most basic human rights. It’s like moving in with the Taliban in support of women’s lib.
Mr. Snowden claims he would not get a fair trial in the United States, because the U.S. government has already poisoned the jury pool by smearing him as a traitor. Maybe he’s never heard of O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony, both tried and convicted in the media before being acquitted for murder. Far more Americans have come out in support of Mr. Snowden, believing him to be a whistleblower. If he truly believes in the system that he claims he is trying to protect, in the Constitution itself, then wouldn’t he voluntarily return to the United States to stand trial for any charges brought against him? As CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer stated on Face the Nation, “I don’t remember Martin Luther King, Jr., or Rosa Parks running off and hiding in China. The people who ran the civil-rights movement were willing to break the law and suffer the consequences. That’s a little different than putting the nation’s security at risk and running away.”
The NSA programs that Mr. Snowden has compromised are not designed to read everyone’s e-mail and eavesdrop on their phone calls. All they really do is collect phone numbers and the length of calls without identifying the subscribers themselves. The so-called “secret courts” that oversee them under the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) restrict access to only specially cleared personnel who have been trained in FISA warrant procedures, and only when they establish a reasonable suspicion that any specific data to be examined relates to a foreign terrorist organization. A recent article in the Washington Post describes the court, originally created under the Carter administration in 1978, as a “clandestine terrorism surveillance tribunal” and “body of law separate from the one on the books.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The use of the term “clandestine” alone is as misleading as it is erroneous; if the FISA court was truly clandestine, after all, then the government would have long denied its existence, which it never has. The Post should know better. Or maybe it doesn’t. The same article goes on to claim that the court almost never turns down a warrant request. However, former U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials involved in counter-terror surveillance operations have confirmed to Geopoliticalmonitor.com that FISA warrants are tougher than any other to obtain. In fact, a former FBI intelligence analyst confirms that the process of securing and then ensuring proper compliance with a FISA warrant is so laborious that many agents prefer not to bother unless they are absolutely certain of an existing threat from the specific target of the requested surveillance.
In any case, Mr. Snowden has neither protected anyone’s rights nor guaranteed individual freedom. Despite his claims that he only leaked information about systems in order to protect people, his actions have put thousands of innocent Americans in harms way by damaging the ability of U.S. intelligence services and law enforcement agencies to connect the dots between suspected terrorists and their activities, making it more difficult, perhaps even impossible, for them to stop the next 9/11. Congressional Democrats and Republicans agree that the NSA surveillance programs are vital to the national security of the United States.
Not everyone buys Mr. Snowden’s whistleblower story. Some, like former Vice President Dick Cheney, initially went so far as to suggest that he has been a Chinese spy, or mole, from the outset. Mr. Snowden responded to the accusation by claiming that if he were a Chinese mole, he would have fled to Beijing where he would now be living like a king, rather than a desperate fugitive on the run. Maybe. Unless the Chinese themselves wanted to smokescreen their involvement, avoid the diplomatic fallout that most assuredly would rain down in the aftermath of such a Chernobyl-grade scandal. How much better for them to cast their “Joe” as a whistleblower and have him blow away the NSA’s operations to the press. How much better to gravely damage U.S. security, global prestige, and even the presidency. How much better to hoodwink a large segment of the American population, including heavyweight influencers, into hailing Mr. Snowden as a hero, rather than have the entire country vilifying him as a traitor, and China as the enemy. How much better to have that same large segment live in greater fear of its own government. Actually, that would be rather Sun-Tzu of them.
On this point, Mr. Snowden’s recent leap to Russia makes little difference. In fact, fleeing China, seeking asylum elsewhere, leap-frogging countries- all this would only enhance his cover. The Russians would be happy to play their part in the charade, as long as the Chinese were willing to share the product. Russia and China do maintain an intelligence cooperation treaty. Both the Chinese and the Russians could also negotiate his safe passage to a third-party nation like Ecuador or Venezuela or Cuba, all of whom might grant Mr. Snowden asylum in exchange for Russian or Chinese largesse. Would he be worth the trouble? Considering all the trouble he alone has caused the United States, you bet.
The more likely scenario, however, is that Mr. Snowden is simply a self-serving narcissist who believes himself righteous in his actions; a loose cannon who thinks he knows better than anyone else what’s in the best interest of the American people, and, in the ascent of his own self-centered one-man dictatorship, the very Constitution he claims to be protecting gets ripped to shreds. If not a spy already, he could still become one after the fact, trade further state secrets as part of a deal for asylum.
To his supporters, all of this is at best far-fetched, and at worst part of a government dirty tricks campaign to smear their hero. But all of these people need ask themselves one simple question: Would they still consider Mr. Snowden a hero if he were an FBI technician who blew away an undercover operation targeting online child sex traffickers using the same surveillance methods under a judicial warrant and congressional oversight? Here, the only difference is the target. Terrorists instead of pedophiles. One thing is for certain: whether delusional narcissist or bona fide spy, as a traitor, Edward Snowden is feeding off the bottom of the same pond.
Alexander Holstein is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com