Mr. Snowden’s revelations

There is no doubt that Mr. Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who has leaked voluminous documents about U.S. programs to monitor communications, has damaged the United States, but not in the ways that he had anticipated.

News of massive data mining programs that scour virtually all communications would only surprise individuals who had paid no attention to reports a decade ago of similar capabilities. And at no point has Mr. Snowden demonstrated that such programs, while shocking in scale, have broken any laws.

Instead, his revelations have tarnished America’s reputation and undermined its credibility when it decries cyber-espionage by other countries.

After working at the CIA and as a private contractor for the NSA, Mr. Snowden secured employment as a privately contracted computer consultant at an NSA facility in Hawaii. After three months, he fled to Hong Kong and provided newspapers and bloggers with details of eavesdropping programs that examined virtually all electronic communications in the U.S.

In newspaper interviews, Mr. Snowden has said that he took the last job precisely to get access to the information that he then leaked to the press. After a short stay in Hong Kong — Mr. Snowden said he went there because he thought it had a political and legal framework that would allow him to continue working without being detained — he traveled to Moscow, where he remains in limbo, in the transit lounge, with no immediate destination in sight.

He has said that he wants to go to Iceland, but he has also reportedly been offered asylum in Ecuador, the same state that provides WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange protection in its London embassy.

Mr. Snowden revealed information about several programs. One stores and examines metadata — information about phone calls, but not the content of the calls themselves — for all telephone calls wholly within the U.S., including local telephone calls, and all calls made between the U.S. and abroad.

Another, called PRISM, allows the NSA to access e-mail, Web searches and other Internet traffic in real time. A third program tapped and hacked e-mail and other communications in China.

At no point, however, has Mr. Snowden provided evidence that any of those programs has broken U.S. laws. U.S. lawmakers were informed of them and regularly briefed on their content. At least on one occasion, they took action to tighten scrutiny and ensure that actions comported with the U.S. Constitution.

Critics counter that oversight is supine. Congress has been only given minuscule information and the judicial checks that exist — a special court that reviews requests for additional information — has never rejected an application.

Yet senior congressional officials dismiss charges that they are being manipulated, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle continue to voice full support for the programs.

Perhaps even more significant is public reaction to the revelations. Majorities in the U.S. do not appear bothered by the programs. They seem to have accepted both the need for widespread surveillance and the argument that they have nothing to fear if they have not broken the law.

There is real debate over whether Mr. Snowden is more accurately characterized as a whistleblower, concerned about outrageous violations of civil rights, or a traitor who has exposed programs critical to U.S. national security.

The latter charge is backed by claims that the programs he revealed prevented 50 terror plots against the U.S., an assertion that has not gone unchallenged.

Most experts believe that serious terrorists would have suspected that programs of this sort existed and would have engaged in tradecraft that minimized their effectiveness. Mr. Snowden’s claim that he took the NSA contractor job specifically to gain access to the information that he revealed is practically a textbook definition of espionage.

Those who compare him with another famous whistleblower, Mr. Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, also miss several key points. Unlike Mr. Ellsberg, Mr. Snowden did not first try to get congressional attention and work through the constitutionally created system of checks and balances. Instead, he went directly to the press. Moreover, Mr. Ellsberg stayed to face the consequences of his actions. Mr. Snowden went on the run.

However, there is no missing the damage that Mr. Snowden has done to the image of the U.S. in the international community. His revelations, especially those concerning the hacking of Chinese communications — which were made to win sympathy from residents of China and Hong Kong — undermine U.S. credibility as Washington complains about cyber-espionage and hacking by China.

There should be no doubt that the U.S., like every other country with the capacity, spies to protect its national security. The U.S. complaints, however, concern the unprecedented scale of Chinese efforts and, in particular, their pursuit of economic secrets. That is spying of a different sort that has not traditionally been countenanced.

That distinction has been lost in the fury surrounding Mr. Snowden’s reports and will remain obscured as China and Russia now delight in charges of U.S. hypocrisy concerning cyber espionage.

  • Spectator

    I think, this editoral completely misses the point about Mr. Snowden’s intentions behind the leaks. He never questioned the lawfulness of the spying programs.
    Instead he was shocked by their scales and questioned their moral standards, so he wanted people to know about them so they could decide by themselves, if they really are willing to sacrifice so much privacy for a little bit of security.

    And the international reputation of the USA hardly suffered, until he revealed, that they even spied on the UN, the G8 and the EU comission and parlament. The only exception is germany, where the people react way more sensitive to privacy issues, because of their history of being spied on by the nazi regime and in eastern Germany by the Stasi and understand what negative consequences those pratices have on them.

    “With great power comes great responsibility” is a famous quote of the Hollywood movie “Spider Man”. The existence of the act of bribery in politics shows, that there are many people, whose sense of responsibility gets compromised by their great level of power. If applied to the NSA, a very likely outcome of these issues can be seen in another Hollywood movie titled “Enemy of the State”.
    From that point, it’s a shorter way than most would expect to the society decribed in Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother”, and finally climaxing in George Orwell’s “1984”.
    In the end, if his revelations help to prevent that, mankind would be unmeasureably indebted to him.

    • Starviking

      The question is, are his revelations about spying against the EU etc reliable, or just an attempt of a Walter Mitty-esque character to stay in the spotlight?

      Not a lot of documentation has been seen by the public, and that which has been revealed, PowerPoint slides, have been so vague as to be useless.

      • Innigkeit

        Yes, probably Snowden made it all up so that he could live an interesting life full of adventure and danger. Why would the US Government lie and hide something from us? It has never done it before, so I don’t think it’s credible.

        Also, why would Snowden reveal truth about PRISM etc. but lie about the EU? What sense does it make?

      • Starviking

        You seem to assume that Snowden is mature and rational. I doubt that he expected to be in the position his is now. Now he is crying that his right to asylum is being violated, as if asylum was a gilded carriage that turned up to bring the worthy to their protectors.

        You are also assuming that the PRISM revaluations are true. Some commentators in the IT world are saying that the PRISM claims are not technically feasable. Certainly no soild documentation has been revealed by Snowden, or the reporters he has worked with.

        Like a lot of things that get presented as facts by the media these day, the Snowden story is high on claims, low on proof.

      • webfulfill

        Insiders, like a friend of mine who was a programmer for this NSA project, know how the programs are being run and it was explained to me. In my opinion, as a cyber security expert, I am telling you they are monitoring everything (not just metadata). They are using sophisticated optimized programs running on banks of super computers. Also don’t count anything you do on the Internet as safe thanks to the NSA. The whole system relies on everyone being honest and obviously not everyone who works there is. At any moment, a consultant, like Snowden could take off with all your secrets and do anything they want.

      • Starviking

        I would not be surprised if there were some monitoring for keywords – but I find that idea that everything is being recorded far-fetched: it would double the data rate out of telephone exchanges, and that would be noticable.

    • “The existence of the act of bribery in politics shows, that there are many people, whose sense of responsibility gets compromised by their great level of power. ”

      Do you really think this is optional? It’s not a matter of integrity, if it were you wouldn’t need a government at all.

      It’s inevitable. The only thing that can be done about that is to make special interest favors illegal. But no one is willing to vote for that because it means that the state would no longer have the power to abridge trade in any way shape or form.

  • alan

    this article is ridiculous it appears that the author has no understanding of usa laws and usa constitution and rightly so how could a person in japan have a full and complete understanding of us laws as for democratically minded usa citizens yes they care a lot about the nsa programs and have voiced their opinion vigorously but if some people chose to be deaf then let them be so I could possibly be now asked to be extradited to japan and face incarceration for voicing my support for snowden but i will take my chances

    • Innigkeit

      I fail to see the vigor so far.

  • I will give the Japan Times’ editorial staff credit: they are consistent. Consistently on the wrong side of any debate they address, even when doing so requires a complete flip-flop in standards, morals and political philosophy. I don’t know how they manage to do it, but I suspect either bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

    Keep up the excellent work!

  • As a danish citizen is it my firm belief that the US actions have to be considered

    A direct attack against the vital national security interests of Europe.
    1) For historical reasons are there huge fear of surveilance due to past experiences for many European countries with Gestapo, Stasi. Basically, EU will not work if EU fails to protect the right to privacy and data secrecy.
    2) It is of the highest national importance for European nations that European citizens can trust in the integrity of digitally transferred information since increased digitization of communication between citizens and public officials are considered important strategies for reducing the cost of running the public sectors in Europe
    3) It is vital that European corporations are protected against cyber-espionage from strategic competitors on the other side of the atlantic and that European citizens do not have to fear the risk of identity-theft or loss of private secrets due to leaks from governmental databases containing way to many personal informations.
    4) It is of vital importance for our negotiation positions that we minimize the risk that foreign nations obtain access to the European negotiation position

    I am deeply worried that our freedom is being undermined by out of control governments in order to further reduce a risk of death from terror there is already ridiculous low compared to the risk of death from a traffic accident.
    Basically, I will not sacrifice my liberty and freedom

    It is my firm belief as a center free trader that
    a) This requires immediate and unlimited European Alliance solidarity. Basically, I consider it NATO article 5 were an attack upon one has to be considered an attack upon all
    b) Necessary to say no to the FTA with USA unless USA makes significant and credible concessions regarding Data Secrecy and Privacy Secrecy
    Simultaneously will it be necessary to reduce the European market access for US tech and service companies and for Europe to invest money (public or private via a roadmap process like the ESFRI roadmap process) in establishing a more European IT and communication infrastructure (including critical software and equipment) in order to protect Europe from US surveilance unless USA makes significant and credible concessions.

    Seems to me, that USA have a greater need for Europe compared to Europes long term need for USA since the Russian population is declining due to low fertility (less of a threat) and since we do not share borders with China.
    Seems to me, that it ought to be possible for us 500 million Europeans to take care of our own defense by uniting into a democratic federation with respect for liberty of the individual, the law and democracy.
    Basically, even though I have supported NATO during my entire life would I if need be prepared to support scrapping NATO, revoking US basing rights on European soil and revoking US military aircraft access rights to European airspace and instead go European for European defense procurement for our shared European Defense instead of accepting surrender of our personal liberty and freedom.
    I do not want a surveillance society

    • Your third point really needs to be hammered home to the individual who wrote this editorial. The writer’s claim that the US is spying to “protect its national security”, which is therefore acceptable, whereas China is spying in “pursuit of economic secrets”, which is unacceptable, merely shows that the writer is either clueless to what the US was doing and why or else has a vicious anti-Chinese streak. Why on Earth would the US be spying on EU offices both within the US and in Europe if it was not pursuing economic secrets? Does the writer believe that there is a case to be made that perhaps the EU was teaming up with Al Qaeda and planning strikes against the US?

      I would agree with the writer’s claim that the US is not unique in spying, and that “every other country with the capacity” also does so – however the US is unique in the capacity it possesses. No other country possesses or has access to the technical and financial resources the US does. Even the EU as a whole is hopelessly outgunned.

    • Starviking

      Surely you’d want some hard evidence before taking your drastic measures, or is Confirmation Bias too strong?
      As for Europe providing its own defence? Unlikely. The strongest militaries in Europe are the UK and France: the UK might go it alone in a few years, and France always considers its interests first.

  • zer0_0zor0

    The crux of the matter can be summed up by stating that the geopolitical aims of the USA have become a preoccupation that borders on imperialism, and the blowback from such un-American machinations abroad is being reflected in US government policies and programs targeting American citizens in America–not to mention abroad.

    The fact that Snowden has exposed the extent of that and brought the issue to the fore should be considered a public service, as far as I’m concerned, as in some respects, Obama has only played lip service to “American values”, while continuing programs and policies implemented by Bush, etc., all the way back to the establishment of the “national security state” in the Truman administration.

    This did not happen overnight.

  • jo hughes

    this argument that the govt hasnt broken the law is an indictment of ‘stare decisis’, ‘settled law’ and ‘precedence’. read the 4th amendment. reconcile it to claims of legality. impossible. could this be one of mr madisons’ ‘many fixes’ as described in fed paper # 10? seems to me that the constitution is a ‘barkers banner’, much like the declaration of independence.

  • deliaruhe

    And then there’s the question of the constitution. In this case, “legal” definitely does not mean “constitutional,” and Obama’s oath to defend and protect it apparently means nothing.