Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding highly sensitive US techniques for gathering foreign-intelligence continue roiling Washington. And because Snowden combined elements of truth swirled together with paranoid speculation, outright lies and pure hype, reviving a rational discussion has been hard.
Snowden’s sympathizers and anti-American activists have so far largely controlled his story line. But that is changing, and with it, the likely tenor of the debate over whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor.
Snowden initially violated his oath to safeguard the national security secrets entrusted to him by revealing National Security Agency (NSA) programs arguably affecting the privacy of US citizens. The second wave of leaks, however, involved purported American cyber-intelligence activities globally and against China. Snowden claimed there were more than 61,000 US hacking operations globally, with hundreds of them directed at China and Hong Kong, and implied the existence of numerous other activities to surveil and counter Beijing’s growing cyber-warfare capabilities.
Publicizing America’s alleged intelligence-collection programs against China may not be identical to Philip Agee revealing the identities of US clandestine operatives, thereby endangering their lives, but it is close. We do not yet know whether Snowden jeopardized US agents, but vital sources and methods of intelligence gathering and operations are clearly at risk. In cyber terms, this is akin to Benedict Arnold scheming to betray West Point’s defenses to the British, thereby allowing them to seize a key American fortification, splitting the colonies geographically at a critical point during the American Revolution.
The political implications are grave. Snowden has given Beijing something it couldn’t achieve on its own: moral equivalence. Now, China can portray itself as a victim, besieged by America, and simply trying to defend itself. Snowden’s initial leaks on NSA programs also caused substantial political harm, above and beyond the intelligence damage. Several European governments which co-operated with the US are now predictably running for the tall grass, endangering the continuity of existing programs and damaging prospects for future co-operation. As with the Bradley Manning/WikiLeaks exposure of thousands of classified State Department and Pentagon cables, Europeans want to know why Washington can’t protect sensitive information.
But Beijing does not deserve moral equivalence, given the intensity of its cyber-attacks against America. The key point is that China struck first, developing a pronounced asymmetric advantage. Militarily, US combat arms are far more vulnerable to attacks on their command-and-control information technology systems than are Beijing’s more primitive capabilities. That may change as China’s military becomes more sophisticated, but for now, offensive cyber capabilities are a preferred Chinese strategy.
Economically, cyber warfare is even more one-sided. As economist Irwin Stelzer recently said (paywall):
“America has lots of intellectual property that is worth stealing, China has very little.”
By inaccurately elevating Beijing to moral equivalence with Washington, Snowden obscured this critical distinction, giving China political shelter.
But what Americans should understand most importantly is what the China leaks reveal about Snowden. If he is lying about these programs, as in some of his earlier assertions about NSA’s eavesdropping, that tells us something important about his character. And if he is telling the truth, revealing sensitive information about American efforts to protect itself against the world’s greatest cyber-warfare power, that tells us even more about his character.
NSA activities against China do not even arguably violate the privacy of US citizens, which is Snowden’s supposedly highminded motive for initially breaking his word, dishonorably and deceitfully. In fact, Snowden’s unilateral decision to leak endangers the national security of 300 million other Americans. He didn’t ask their views or their permission, and he has no democratic legitimacy whatever.
The NSA’s programs, at least, were approved by all three branches of our government, two elected by the people and the third populated by the first two. The Founders only gave us three branches, and while far from perfect, they are at least ultimately accountable to America’s real sovereigns: its citizens. Snowden is accountable only to his own self-importance.
Moreover, the China leaks highlight gaps and inconsistencies in Snowden’s “legend” (as invented identities are sometimes called). Before he made his run for China, was he acting alone, as he claims, or was he acting partly as a vehicle for others in the intelligence community or in Congress, disgruntled and out to settle scores? Snowden denies previous ties to China’s government or being Beijing’s agent: is this true or not? Or is he not now, both overtly and covertly, trying to bribe Beijing’s authorities to secure asylum in China, contrary to his earlier smug comments about facing the consequences of his actions in America?
Unfortunately, Snowden clearly has more information to reveal, causing more damage to the United States and its allies. But we know enough already to conclude that Snowden has betrayed his country and the trust his countrymen placed in him in sensitive positions of confidence in our intelligence community.
So, make no mistake: any American politician who now calls Snowden a hero is not fit to be entrusted with America’s national security.