Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Collateral Damage

" assumption is underpinning the US analysis: The belief that China copied and read whatever documents he had in Hong Kong."

Intelligence officials (and their attendant journalists), it seems, are trying to get us to understand the damage that Edward Snowden, perhaps unintentionally (i.e., "not wittingly"), did to U.S. national security. My first reaction is to point out that every time people try to use the fact that, say, drone strikes do a lot of "collateral damage" as an argument against the drone strikes themselves they are told to keep the bigger picture in mind.

My second reaction is this: if you're really worried that leaked information will fall into the wrong hands you should treat leakers with greater respect. That is, you should offer credible whistle-blower protections.

In the Snowden case, it seems pretty straightforward. If Snowden had felt he could safely leak information to show that the Director of National Intelligence lied to Congress about what his agencies were up to, i.e., if anyone working within the intelligence apparatus could be given a reasonable expectation that leaking information that informs citizens about something that officials are trying to conceal from those citizens will not ruin their life, then they would not, when conscience forces them to speak out, seek the protection of foreign governments, who might, of course, have their own interest in the information the whistleblower has access to.

In fact, coming down hard on whistleblowers has the effect of forcing whistleblowers to steal not just the secrets they want to expose "on purpose", but additional secrets that might be used to bargain with possible protectors.

My third (and last, for now) reaction is this: all the motives that have so far been attributed to Snowden are pretty ordinary. At best, he is a man of conscience, at worst he's looking for fame and adventure. I don't think anyone has suggested he actually wants to hurt America or expects to make a lot of money off this. But even this would be pretty ordinary stuff, given a population of, what, 1.4 million Americans with security clearance. To blame (and even be very interested in) Snowden's motives is to miss the fact that an intelligence must maintain discipline in ranks that can be expected to have such motives.

So, for example, if you're going to lie to the American people about how you're spying on them, you are simply going to have to lie also to the rank-and-file intelligence officers that, "unwittingly", spy on them. Otherwise the very patriotic sentiments you are counting on to keep them motivated will ultimately drive them to betray you. To not get this is simply to be unable to lead a nation.

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