Loose Canons

Snowden Snowed In

He's a fugitive. Will Google and Yahoo be, too?

By 11.4.13

McZusatz (Creative Commons)
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Mrs. O'Leary's cow was lost to history after it ignited the Chicago Fire because the fire was vastly more important than the cow. Having ignited a global fire around the U.S. intelligence community, NSA leaker Edward Snowden is inevitably being condemned to the same fate for the same reason. He isn't at all happy about it.

Apparently frustrated by the lack of hospitality he’s receiving in Moscow, Snowden gave a letter to Hans-Christian Stroebele, a German “Green” politician, last Thursday in which he writes in the style of John Kerry’s testimony to the Senate in April 1971.

In the letter, Snowden first passes himself off as a “technical expert” previously employed -- directly or indirectly -- by the NSA, the CIA, and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was never, of course, an intelligence analyst or spy: he was a low-level computer “administrator” inexplicably given access to an enormous amount of information about top-secret intelligence-gathering systems and methods. He claims that having been witness to enormous and illegal acts by the U.S. government, he had a “moral duty” to act. (That small fact is problematic: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said only a couple of days ago that the NSA’s “metadata” gathering was legal.)

Which echoes people such as Bill Ayers and the rest of the radicals for whom cocktail parties were thrown on the Lower East Side in the ’60s and ’70s.

And then he gets down to the nub of his complaints. Having satisfied his “moral duty” -- by divulging the NSA’s secrets -- he’s been subjected to a “severe and sustained campaign of persecution that forced me from my family home.” He’s been “heartened” by the reaction to his revelations and how policies and laws are being changed to correct “abuses of public trust.” But he complains that the U.S. government still insists on treating “political speech” as a felony. “Speaking truth,” he writes, “is no crime.”

Snowden writes that he’s confident that if the “international community” supports him, the U.S. government will abandon its intent to prosecute him, upon which he may envision his triumphant return from durance vile to be feted by liberals everywhere, especially in Germany, to which he invites himself.

Before Snowden gave the leaked materials to Glenn Greenwald (of the UK’s Guardian newspaper) he may have dreamed of fame and fortune, of making his name a household synonym for “hero.” But reality intervened.

Snowden is obviously guilty of stealing the information from NSA and his employer, Booze Allen Hamilton. Because he has no expertise in the matters of intelligence -- or in anything else except doing “geek squad” work on computers -- the celebrity (such as it is) has been vested in Greenwald, not Snowden. It is Greenwald who gets to proclaim that new shocking revelations are coming, it is Greenwald’s homosexual partner who gets detained by MI-5 because he’s smuggling more intelligence materials from Germany (not from Snowden in Russia). And, unless he sold his story to the Guardian or some publisher, Snowden won’t make a dime from any of it.

The best Snowden can hope for is that Greenwald will write a book about him. And that’s not much to hope for because, stranded in Moscow at Putin’s sufferance, he won’t even be able to attend the Manhattan book parties.

Though Snowden will be no more than a footnote in history, the events he has precipitated are politically and substantively important.

Part of the liberal audience Snowden was playing to with his leak campaign is the European Parliament. Though it has no real power, the EU Parliament has already passed a resolution telling the Euro governments to suspend the Belgian “SWIFT” consortium’s cooperation with the U.S. in tracing terrorist financing as a protest against the NSA’s practices. The SWIFT group has, since 9/11, proved an essential part of the antiterrorist effort not only in the U.S. but in Europe and, to some degree, the Middle East because the SWIFT group encompasses a large number of banks worldwide.

The problem here is not yet critical. It is like the German government’s real embarrassment -- and diplomatic protests -- in respect to the NSA’s monitoring of Chancellor Merkel’s cell phone for the past ten years. Each may evolve into a real loss of cooperation by governments -- and a great loss of intelligence information -- or it may not.

Governments, especially those of our real allies -- not those nations that pretend to be -- have tended to let time pass and not interfere with intelligence activities by the U.S. intelligence community. But the levels of embarrassment here and abroad may change that.

Consider the prospect of EU action against companies such as Google, Yahoo, and such which have cooperated with the NSA in its monitoring activities. At this point, it’s not at all clear whether the EU nations will impose some civil or criminal liability on them for continuing their cooperation. The same may be said of the telephone companies that handle calls to or from Europe. Which means all of them.

One of the biggest reasons that the NSA -- and the CIA and other intelligence agencies -- gains cooperation from these companies is that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act exempts the companies from liability for doing so. If the Europeans act to impose a different liability -- under their laws, not ours -- the whole NSA system could be unraveled. Which could mean that critical, actionable intelligence would be beyond the reach our intel agencies.

In a saner time, with a better White House, we’d see and hear a lot about action to prevent this damage to our abilities to gather intelligence. If we had an attorney general interested in enforcing the law, he might remind the Germans that we still have an indictment of Snowden pending and that they have treaty obligations to extradite Snowden to us if he visits their country.

But the world is not especially sane, and the president is far more interested in dealing with the Obamacare website’s failings than matters of national security. He’s even called in experts from Google, Yahoo, and other Internet companies to help him fix the unfixable.

Maybe there’s some hope in that. The telephone companies that campaigned successfully for their liability exemption in the round of FISA amendments could join with the Internet companies and demand protection from the imposition of liability by the Europeans. It may be too much to expect, but if companies called in by the president to fix his Obamacare website delayed any fix until the European liability problem were solved, the president might -- just might -- care enough to actually solve a problem for our national security in a way that would maintain that security.

If there is a plan in all this, it’s pretty simple. The president and his minions are always calling Republicans “hostage takers.” It’s too much to expect any part of the Obama regime to help, but for once, the companies whose participation in intelligence gathering can only continue if they’re not held liable in court for doing so could take the Obamacare website hostage. Or at least do what the unions sometime do: conduct a work slowdown that would have the same effect.

Obama might get the message if it’s an offer he can’t refuse.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. You can follow him on Twitter @jedbabbin.