Edward Snowden: Straining the Quality of Mercy
by Creon Critic
The NY Times Editorial Board does their best to present the argument that Edward Snowden’s disclosure of classified US documents makes him a whistleblower, and that further, Snowden deserves clemency or perhaps even pardon for his actions. Part of the attraction of the Snowden as whistleblower angle is that it is true by the lights of privacy and civil liberties activists. Given US government misconduct and given the need for debate about state surveillance in our big data era, Snowden deserves clemency, if not a pardon – so this line of thinking goes.
The trouble that this argument runs into is that a not insubstantial portion of Snowden’s revelations boil down to: The leading signals-intelligence organ of the US conducts signals-intelligence. Competently.
Insofar as Snowden has revealed this fact — signals-intelligence agency conducts signals-intelligence — he has violated the commitments he made to keep secret those classified materials properly designated as such by US authorities. For the sake of argument granting that day one revelations were whistleblowing — even supposing the Supreme Court ultimately finds bulk phone metadata collection and Prism unconstitutional — what about all the subsequent disclosures? All those details about the sources and methods of US intelligence operatives, and the details about the technology and the targets. Was their revelation also necessary?
The US intelligence community is rightly angry at these disclosures. They are doing hard work to produce intelligence products to keep the US safe and provide timely, accurate information to US policymakers. While I don’t agree with former CIA director James Woolsey’s rather harsh assessment, “If convicted [of treason] by a jury of his peers, [Snowden] should be hanged by his neck until he is dead,” I understand the frustration that prompted Woolsey to say “I think giving [Snowden] amnesty is idiotic” (Ars Technica).
The publication of details on NSA operations cannot be said to advance the aim of Fourth Amendment compliance. It is simply the undermining of the NSA’s ability to pursue its core signals intelligence mission. Der Spiegel provides a handy interactive graphic of secret and often top secret documents that exemplify the kind of overbreadth involved in the Snowden disclosures. Just to focus on the “Room Surveillance” item, we learn the specifications of the CTX4000 and that it is to be replaced by Photoanglo starting in September 2008. Curious about the CTX4000’s replacement Photoanglo? Well, Snowden has helpfully disclosed a top secret document about that too. Unit cost of Photoanglo, $40k, it weighs less than 10 lbs, and is small enough to fit into a slim briefcase. Pages and pages of this kind of information: Ironchef targets Hewlett-Packard servers, Deitybounce used for Dell servers, Headwater targets Huawei routers, etc.
Another domain of overbreadth, not serving US domestic civil liberties concerns, relates to details of overseas NSA targeting Snowden revealed. Revealing the NSA successfully accessed the Mexican Secretariat of Public Security’s networks, the authority responsible for “police, counterterrorism, prison system and border police” (Spiegel, Oct, Dec). Revealing to the South China Morning Post the NSA’s 75% success rate in targeting Hong Kong computers and “show[ing] specific dates and the IP addresses of computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland hacked by the National Security Agency over a four-year period” (SCMP). And so it goes, revelations of NSA targets in Germany, France, Brazil, Belgium, and beyond. (Yes, allies “spy on each other all the time.”)
These revelations, technical specifications and overseas targeting, are connected to the Fourth Amendment how, exactly? Why did the general public needed to know how much US listening devices weigh, their dimensions, and their bandwidth to have a discussion about privacy? Who is Edward Snowden to reveal these kinds of fine details and why does he deserve forgiveness for doing so?