Remember how, three weeks ago, British officials detained at Heathrow Airport the Brazilian boyfriend of Glenn Greenwald, who has been facilitating the public spewing of secrets stolen by leaker-defector Edward Snowden? One heard hue and cry about this latest supposed overreach by security authorities, who were picking on not just a journalist but his domestic partner. Greenwald wailed that this was an escalation of “attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism,” that “to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic,” and that “even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they felt threatened by.” Greenwald further complained that the authorities had taken his boyfriend’s computer and memory sticks and said nothing about returning them.
A couple of weeks later a senior national security adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron indicated in a statement submitted to a British court that the confiscated computer and memory sticks contained tens of thousands of highly classified documents, including secrets not only of the United States but of the United Kingdom. The adviser stated that compromise of the documents would endanger, among other things, counterterrorist techniques and the identities and possibly lives of intelligence officers. British citizens, as well as U.S. citizens, should be grateful for the alert intercept at Heathrow. The Brazilian boyfriend was serving as a courier in an international stolen-secrets ring.
This latest turn in the sordid story begun by a rogue Booz Allen contractor leads to several observations. One concerns the differential attention directed to different parts of this story by the public—not to mention by the media, for which leaked secrets are red meat, and which therefore constitute a highly biased participant in any story involving leaks. Even allowing for it being Labor Day weekend in the United States, and for the competition for attention from other stories such as a possible war with Syria, the revelation about how far Snowden’s national security larceny had gone received a tiny fraction of the earlier attention to his leaks involving intercept activity in the United States.
Snowden, and his collaborators such as Greenwald, had a shrewd public roll-out plan. They started with the stuff about NSA collection activity within the United States, to get on the good side of a lot of public opinion by having Snowden pose as a “whistle-blower” acting on behalf of personal privacy. It was only after scoring that public relations coup that they got on with the rest of their assault on U.S. (and British) national security. Since then there has been a steady flow of divulged stolen secrets, ranging from descriptions of the entire U.S. intelligence program to details about overseas political intelligence targets or NSA’s ability to decrypt coded material. Nearly all of this is far removed from any issues of privacy or civil rights or anything else that should be the least bit controversial. It is about normal, legitimate activity by arms of the government performing their assigned missions on behalf of national defense and the conduct of foreign relations. Mainstream media, feasting on the red meat, keep publishing the material. The material may be interesting, titillating, and occasionally even educational. But it is not scandalous.
The revelation of the material, however, is scandalous. The damage from the disclosures is major, including tipping off adversaries to the vulnerabilities they would need to correct to impede the collection of information about them, tipping off those same adversaries to our own vulnerabilities that they can exploit, causing a host of difficulties in relations with foreign governments, and much more. Those inside the U.S. government doing damage assessments will be kept busy for a long time by just this one case. Say what you want about whether this or that particular item ought to have been classified; the great bulk of the revealed material was classified for very good reasons.
It is now clear that Snowden was not focused on unearthing for public debate only selected matters that raise issues of privacy and that ought to be debated. He instead was, like his contemporary Bradley Manning, engaged in wholesale compromising of any secrets he could get his hands (or his keyboard) on, consequences be damned. He was conducting an unrestricted attack on U.S. government information security. Perhaps he and Manning exhibit a naïve belief that secrecy is not necessary for conducting programs of foreign policy and national security. But traitors are not all sophisticated; some are naïve.
It is well past time to discard the notion that Snowden wasn’t doing something terribly wrong because he was not working all along, in classic spy-novel fashion, as an agent of a foreign government. For one thing, foreign governments (and terrorist groups) read U.S. newspapers. For another, when Snowden went to Moscow he put himself at the mercy of the Russian government. When he was given permission to stay in Russia, it could be assumed that anything he had on whatever laptop or thumb drive he had with him came into the possession of the Russian intelligence services. Given his earlier stop in Hong Kong, when he also was looking for help in where to go, probably something similar happened with the Chinese. In short, Snowden’s actions entailed bushels of U.S. secrets being given to Russia and China. There are various terms that can be applied to that, but it certainly isn’t “whistle-blowing.”
Vladimir Putin will not turn over Snowden to the United States. But maybe some measure of justice will be served as we recall how earlier defectors to the Soviet Union and to Russia ended up living out their days there unhappily. Once the rulers in Moscow have gotten all they want out of the defector—and Snowden already has provided his usefulness to the Russians—they haven’t tended to treat their guest with lasting fondness and respect. With Snowden there is the added, and just, irony that, after having rationalized his actions in the name of protecting personal privacy from intrusion, he has ended up in a state where there has been far more governmental spying on its own residents—as there surely will be on him—than anything that has taken place in the United States.
Former Brookings Expert
Nonresident Senior Fellow - Georgetown University
Amy Knight recalls how Kim Philby, after he defected to the Soviet Union, led a mostly miserable existence in which he felt isolated and unwanted, spent most of his time at home drinking, and attempted to commit suicide. Knight notes that things might not be quite the same for Snowden, because in the Internet age he will not be as cut off from information as Philby was and because, having defected at a younger age, he might be better able to learn the language and start a new life as a Russian. That’s too bad, but maybe with more years to live he will have that many more years to feel miserable. If he were to live for a long time in some drab apartment, to feel unwanted, to think regretfully of the girlfriend he left in Hawaii, and to sink into vodka-induced stupors, that would begin to be condign punishment for what he has done.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published by The National Interest.