Just before Christmas the House Intelligence Committee released its report on Edward Snowden and roundly condemned him as a traitor. Let me state up front that I find the report very disingenuous. Young Mr. Snowden, I am sure, had some flaws and shortcomings. But the Committee’s insistence that he was not a whistleblower basically because he did not follow regular procedures for flagging problems up the chain of command is ludicrous.
Here are the key highlights from the report:
Most of the documents Snowden stole have no connection to programs that could impact privacy or civil liberties—they instead pertain to military, defense, and intelligence programs of great interest to America’s adversaries.
• “The vast majority of documents Snowden removed were unrelated to electronic surveillance or any issues associated with privacy and civil liberties.” (p. 22)
• “Snowden would later publicly claim that his ‘breaking point’—the final impetus for his unauthorized downloads and disclosures of troves of classified material—was March 2013 congressional testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. . . .But only a few weeks after [he became engaged in a] conflict with NSA managers, on July 12, 2012—eight months before Director Clapper’s testimony—Snowden began the unauthorized mass downloading of information from NSA networks.” (p. 10)
Snowden was not a whistleblower.
• “The Committee further found no evidence that Snowden attempted to communicate concerns about the legality or morality of intelligence activities to any officials, senior or otherwise, during his time at either CIA or NSA.” (p. 16)
• “Snowden did, however, contact NSA personnel who worked in an internal oversight office about his personal difficulty understanding the safeguards against unlawful intelligence activities.” (p. 17)
• “As a legal matter, during his time with NSA, Edward Snowden did not use whistleblower procedures under either law or regulation to raise his objections to U.S. intelligence activities, and thus, is not considered a whistleblower under current law.” (p. 18)
Snowden was, and remains, a serial exaggerator and fabricator
Snowden’s disclosures did tremendous damage to U.S. national security, and the Committee remains concerned that more than three years after the start of the unauthorized disclosures, NSA, and the IC as a whole, have not done enough to minimize the risk of another massive unauthorized disclosure.
• “As of June 2016, the most recent DoD review identified 13 high-risk issues . . . . Eight of the 13 relate to [redacted] capabilities of DoD; if the Russian or Chinese governments have access to this information, American troops will be at greater risk in any future conflict.” (p. 22)
• “In the aftermath of Snowden’s disclosures, NSA compiled a list of [redacted] security improvements for its networks. . . . In August 2016, more than three years after Snowden’s first disclosures, four of the [redacted] initiatives remained outstanding.” (p. 29)
• “In August 2016, DOD IG issued its report, finding that NSA needed to take additional steps to effectively implement the privileged access-related Secure the Net initiatives.” (p. 29)
• “[A] recent CIA Inspector General report found that CIA has not yet implemented multi-factor authentication controls such as a physical token for general or privileged users of the Agency’s enterprise or mission systems.” (p. 30)
Let’s just go with the Report’s fundamental claim that Snowden is a terrible person who was pursuing some personal agenda, probably based on revenge against crappy bosses. Okay. That still ignores the other elephant in the room, namely, the illegal, un-Constitutional spying that the NSA was doing against American citizens. The claim by the House Intel Committee that Snowden is not a whistle blower because he never “attempted to communicate concerns about the legality or morality of intelligence activities to any officials,” is particularly hilarious.
Why would he do that given the experience of Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe, Edward Loomis and Thomas Drake as they followed procedure and warned superiors? Here’s the Wikipedia summary on Bill Binney’s experience with playing by the rules:
In September 2002, he [Binney], along with J. Kirk Wiebe and Edward Loomis, asked the U.S. Defense Department Inspector General (DoD IG) to investigate the NSA for allegedly wasting “millions and millions of dollars” on Trailblazer, a system intended to analyze mass collection of data carried on communications networks such as the Internet. Binney had been one of the inventors of an alternative system, ThinThread, which was shelved when Trailblazer was chosen instead. Binney has also been publicly critical of the NSA for spying on U.S. citizens, saying of its expanded surveillance after the September 11, 2001 attacks that “it’s better than anything that the KGB, the Stasi, or the Gestapo and SS ever had” as well as noting Trailblazer’s ineffectiveness and unjustified high cost compared to the far less intrusive ThinThread. He was furious that the NSA hadn’t uncovered the 9/11 plot and stated that intercepts it had collected but not analyzed likely would have garnered timely attention with his leaner more focused system.
After he left the NSA in 2001, Binney was one of several people investigated as part of an inquiry into the 2005 The New York Times exposé on the agency’s warrantless eavesdropping program. Binney was cleared of wrongdoing after three interviews with FBI agents beginning in March 2007, but in early July 2007, in an unannounced, armed, early morning raid, a dozen agents armed with rifles appeared at his house, one of whom entered the bathroom and pointed his gun at Binney, who was taking a shower. The FBI confiscated a desktop computer, disks, and personal and business records. The NSA revoked his security clearance, forcing him to close a business he ran with former colleagues at a loss of a reported $300,000 in annual income. The FBI raided the homes of Wiebe and Loomis, as well as House Intelligence Committee staffer Diane Roark, the same morning. Several months later the Bureau raided the home of then still active NSA executive Thomas Andrews Drake who had also contacted DoD IG, but anonymously with confidentiality assured. The Assistant Inspector General, John Crane, in charge of the Whistleblower Program, suspecting his superiors provided confidential information to the Justice Dept(DOJ), challenged them, was eventually forced from his position, and subsequently himself became a public whistleblower. The punitive treatment of Binney, Drake, and the other whistleblowers also led Edward Snowden to go public with his revelations rather than report through the internal whistleblower program. In 2012, Binney and his co-plaintiffs went to federal court to retrieve the confiscated items.
The abuses against Binney, Loomis, Wiebe and Drake occurred under President Bush and President Obama. And it was under Obama’s watch that the Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper lied under oath to Congress and was never held accountable or punished. So, call me naive, but I can understand how a young guy like Snowden can conclude that our intelligence system is corrupted and unaccountable to anyone. I can understand why he might believe that the guys at the very top can violate laws and the Constitution and go untouched. Hell, they get promoted. They get awards. They get pay increases. The House Intel Committee report on Snowden happily ignores these uncomfortable facts.
I am not suggesting that you should embrace what Edward Snowden did, but I do believe the story is more complicated and nuanced than the account the House Intel Committee wants you to believe.
UPDATE–The real value of this report is in the final set of findings regarding the steps NSA was supposed to have taken to tighten up security in the wake of Mr. Snowden walking off with a library of secrets. Bottomline, NSA has been dragging its feet in doing something to improve the security of the networks and how contractors access those networks. Makes you wonder if the actual damage was as great as claimed.