Have We Gone Down the Rabbit Hole?

September 1, 2013
By Kent R. Schneider

Do you ever find yourself trying to reconcile with your environment? That is where I am now with regard to national security and reaction to leaks and programs designed to protect against terrorist threats.

In 2010, Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks organization got themselves on the world stage by publishing large volumes of classified documents, many provided by Pfc. Bradley Manning, USA, an intelligence analyst. At that time, and since, both Assange and Manning have been held up as villains by some and as heroes and whistle-blowers by others.

In May of this year, Edward Snowden, a computer analyst hired by Booz Allen Hamilton to work on U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) programs, leaked massive classified data to the British newspaper The Guardian concerning NSA intelligence-gathering programs. Again, Snowden is a traitor or a hero, depending on whom you talk to. A recent USA Today poll found 55 percent of Americans felt Snowden was a whistle-blower and hero.

The government continues to address these massive leaks, their implications to national security and the changes to law that may be needed. In the Manning case, the administration consistently has been determined to prosecute him for treason and aiding the enemy. On July 30, USA Today reported on its online front page with the headline, “Manning verdict redefines meaning of traitor.” While the military court ruled that Manning was guilty of a number of the charges, including parts of the Espionage Act, he was found not guilty of “giving aid to the enemy,” the most serious of the charges, because the prosecutors did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he had “a specific intent to aid or assist the enemy.” Legal analysts now are saying that Congress should review the Espionage Act in light of the pervasiveness of technology and its new role in warfighting and terrorism.

The Snowden case is more confounding because it is entangled in the balance between security and privacy. This debate has been fueled by a huge amount of misinformation. In the leak of information to The Guardian, Snowden initially leaked only information that tended to support his allegation that the NSA was illegally monitoring U.S. telephone and Internet traffic. Details since have been released that clearly point out that the Section 215 telephone data collection involves metadata only, and that is placed in a “lockbox,” or secure repository, that can by accessed only under court order when sufficient cause has been shown that terrorist activity may exist. Even then, no content is stored or released.

This program was proposed by the Bush administration; passed into law by a strong majority of Congress; renewed by the Obama administration; and is overseen by the court. Section 702, which deals with the collection of foreign Internet traffic, has similar controls. Studies conducted since the beginning of this debate show that the United States has much stronger controls over such collection than other countries in the world, including those in Europe.

It is baffling that many members of Congress—the same Congress that overwhelmingly approved the original programs and their renewal—came out in public against these programs before the facts were fully known. Members of Congress who have been fully informed on the programs, such as members of the intelligence oversight committees, have stood steadfastly behind the programs, saying that all the necessary controls are in place to ensure compliance with the law.

Many have called for a public debate. I fully agree. But have the debate, get the facts out first and then propose changes if necessary. These leaks have caused tremendous damage to the security of the United States and its allies. Let’s not aggravate that through a knee-jerk reaction.

One fact needs to be absolutely clear: Manning and Snowden are criminals. They are traitors. They were trained and given access to information at the Top Secret/Special Compartmented Information level. They knew exactly what the impact on national security would be when they leaked classified information. They had signed agreements to protect the classified information in their care and were clearly informed what the penalties would be if they disclosed that information. There were legal ways for these two people to report violations if they believed they were occurring. They chose not to take that path. Let’s not appear to validate their actions, or we all will be down the rabbit hole.


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Share Your Thoughts:

I fully support the thought that when entrusted with secrets by the government at the highest levels it is a fundamental duty not to betray that trust, which is why I understand your position regarding Snowden even though I wholeheartedly disagree with it. There are moments when this trust can and should be violated when moral and legal objections are clear.

The mass collection of phone meta data, and more importantly the tapping of the internet at major commercial junction points, is a clear violation of the Constitution by any objective measure. Upon learning that his government was violating its own founding principles, Snowden acted by publicly identifying himself, giving up a comfortable lifestyle, and leaving the country in order to shed light on these issues. Many others with access and knowledge and perhaps even sharing similar objections chose to keep quiet and continue cashing their paychecks. It's clear to me which path was the more honorable one.

Snowdens' choice to go to the press with the information rather than attempt to go through formal channels was the most likely means to produce results by bringing at least a limited transparency to what was happening. It is naive to believe that there were internal channels by which he could have blown the whistle on this activity that would have been productive. Even members of the congressional oversight committees have admitted their knowledge of and authority to stop these programs was limited, and the secret FISA court itself has expressed concerns that they were not being told the truth about what was happening and the potential for abuse of the data being collected.

It’s also clear to me that the contention that these revelations somehow changed our adversary’s tactics is ridiculous. Only at the lowest levels do uninformed terrorists actively communicate on the open internet. This is clearly indicated by the communication patterns of senior Al Qaeda leadership and even Bin Laden himself who was living off the grid completely for fear of surveillance. This of course raises the question about the true usefulness of the data at all.

A recent story about the intelligence term "LoveInt", a term used to describe how some analysts have used intelligence data sources to track “acquaintances” underscores the real concern in my eyes: Simply having such massive repositories at all is wrong and opens the door to potential abuses now and in the future. Imagine this capability in the hands of a Nixon administration for example. If the government has cause to chase down someone's activities online they should do it the right way: Get a court order subject to an opposing privacy argument, subpoena specific information from the relevant companies, and maintain a clear chain of custody for any data provided.

Snowdens' actions have jump started the conversation. Now we need more heroes to continue the discussion and help shape the world we wish to live in rather than simply accepting a surveillance state as the new normal.

As a European citizen I also have to express my concerns on the views and statements of Mr. Schneider.

Given the information that has been provided by Snowden is correct, the US government did not only violate the US constitution, but it massively broke contracts with and laws of many other partner states. Spying European embassies, SWIFT, the Brazilian government etc can not be part of an US policy against terrorism.

In addition, compromising encryption algorithms and standards that are widely used by individuals and companies leads to an additional threat that hopefully after being made transparent now, will get taken care of.

Last but not least the act of the US government is going to lead to a significant loss of trust of consumers into many products that US companies are offering on an international level and thus will cause a severe economic damage to those companies.

Terrorism is a sever threat to many of us, but to sacrifice the privacy of all of us is not an acceptable answer. Privacy belongs to my unimpeachable basic rights. I therefore disagree, especially if the same government accepts thousands of US citizens every year getting killed by misuse of hand guns without addressing the problem properly.

Still thinking of the integrity of the US government, the senate and the congress, all this leaves me with the question to which extend the potentially criminal acts that have been conducted by US governmental agencies have been transparent to and sanctioned by them at all.

Mr Robinson is very right with his conclusion above. It is the start of a discussion and not participating will lead us all down to the rabbit hole.

Keith and Dirk both make a great argument in support of privacy rights. History has tried to teach us over and over again that giving up freedom for security is a dangerous trade to make. To quote Benjamin Franklin: "He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither."

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