On March 10, Edward Snowden was interviewed via videoconference at the annual conference of SXSW Interactive: “Conversation with Edward Snowden” It is an absolutely brilliant discussion of the issues first raised by Snowden last year with emphasis on protecting our privacy. I had not viewed it yet when I posted my last blog on the slippery slop of government expansion, but it provides another powerful set of examples. I strongly urge anyone to view it who is interested in and concerned about how to strengthen our security against criminals and enemies without eroding the checks and limits on the scope and power of our government that is one of the foundations of our successful democracy built into our constitution.
Snowden is surprisingly articulate. He understands economics almost as well as cryptology. I will repeat here just two of the many brilliant points he made and urge you to watch it all.
No one in the discussion of surveillance and national security raised by Snowden wishes to impede the ability of the NSA or the government to gather information on targeted individuals under court orders with proper oversight. Sounding like an economist (and of course we all love economists) Snowden notes that the billions of dollars that have been wasted on mass (as opposed to targeted) data collection and analysis (it has produced virtually no useful information) has taken valuable resources away from improving the collection and analysis of targeted information. Thus, for example, the underwear bomber and the Boston marathon bombers probably could have been stopped if our government had used its intelligence resources more wisely. In short, mass surveillance programs have reduced our security in many ways.
When asked why the NSA and other government security agencies persist in hanging on to worthless and wasteful (and potentially dangerous) programs, Snowden presents a proper public choice answer that is very similar to the special interest defense of wasteful and harmful tax loop holes I criticized a few days ago. Individuals and companies benefit from the huge amounts spent on these programs. They acquire a self-interest in their preservation. In addition, bureaucrats are naturally self-protective and slow-moving. You really should listen to Snowden’s own words.
As I have said a number of times previously, the disclosures of confidential government documents and internal discussions by Chelsea (AKA Bradley) Manning are harmful to the effective functioning of government. I am glad that she is in jail, though a hospital would probably be more appropriate. Snowden, on the other hand is a full-blown hero and patriot. It took me a while to fully embrace this view, but it is clear now that our personal and national security have already improved and should improve further in the future because of him (and others working in the same direction). I am very grateful for the huge personal sacrifice he has made for me and for our country. I hope that our government will find a way to welcome him back home soon.
Edward Snowden continues to amaze me and to rise in my admiration (see his interview by the New York Times). “Snowden-says-he-took-no-secret-files-to-Russia”
He most certainly violated his pledge and the law, but the thoughtfulness and care with which he has revealed very selective documents contrasts very sharply with the damaging data dump of Chelsea Manning (AKA Bradley). Manning, who never convincingly explained what he thought he was doing or why, impeded the flow of candid information and discussion within the U.S. government (e.g. in cables between our embassy’s and the State Department). This will make future diplomacy more difficult.
Snowden, on the other hand, who revealed information gathering programs and their assessments rather than the content of information collected, has thankfully forced more open discussion of what tools the government has and how they should be used. He has risked his own future in the heroic service of the higher interests of his (and my) country. Richard Cohn expresses these views very well in a recent Washington Post oped: “Snowden is no Traitor/2013/10/21/”
Our government has been caught lying repeatedly in connection with its spying activity. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/abuse-of-power/ In many respects this is an expected part of the game with regard to enemies we wish to protect ourselves from. But the law sets important limits and safeguards on the government when it comes to spying on its own at home or friends abroad (e.g. the President of Mexico, 70 million French phone records per month, etc). Records revealed by Snowden document that these are being violated as well.
Last week I attended a fascinating discussion at the Brookings Institute between Matt Apuzzo, Investigative Reporter for The Associated Press and author with Adam Goldman of Enemies Within: Inside NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and Bin Ladin’s Final Plot Against America (Touchstone, 2013), and Bruce Riedel, Director, The Intelligence Project, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. Apuzzo and Goldman’s book is a spy thriller account of the only specific case revealed by the government of the 50 potential attacks they claim their programs helped prevent. The government thwarted the September 2009 al Qaeda terrorist plot – led by Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-American – to attack the New York City subway system. Without taking a position on whether NSA and related domestic spying activities helped with this case, Mr. Apuzzo reported that the link to the would be terrorist came as the result of an email he sent to a known British terrorist. This was enough to enabled the government to monitor Mr. Zazi’s communications on the basis of older and established intelligence authorities without resort to the more intrusive programs reveals by Snowden. So the government lied to us again.
The natural tendency of government is to grow and to expand their authority. Whenever our government seemed to go too far, American’s have pushed back. Edward Snowden has alerted us to the need to push back again and I am very grateful to him for that.