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How Edward Snowden’s Victory Hampers Intelligence Gathering

Rather than ensuring the protection of civil liberties, Edward Snowden biggest impact is the restriction of U.S. intelligence gathering efforts.

Let’s start with the simple idea that there are good kinds of spying and bad kinds of spying. Good kinds of spying are focused externally to the American citizenry, aimed at protecting American interests and lives and obtaining information necessary to do that. Bad kinds of spying invade the privacy of Americans, often for no purpose or for purposes that have nothing to do with security, and obtain, collect, and tabulate information and the most private of secrets in an example of rampant overreach by the state.

Central to the good approach is the idea that it means something to be an American, and that the way our government treats citizens is rightly different than the way it treats non-citizens. It is based on the concept that American civil liberties belong to Americans, not to the world – and that American rights to life, liberty, and property can only be denied by due process of law.

The good approach also recognizes the need for, and the benefits of, espionage in the modern world. As Ronald Reagan’s old saw goes, we cannot play innocents abroad in a world that is not innocent. Spying on other nations, and the citizens of other nations, is undertaken because we know they are attempting to do the same to us, often successfully – and it does us no good to operate blindly.

But it is also pursued because the information obtained can save lives. At their most useful, they can and do prevent attacks that start wars. And we have largely made our peace with this idea over the years. If the quiet, messy work of a few Americans in the dark can keep the vilest weapons out of terrorist hands, eliminate threats before they wreak havoc, or prevent the bombing deaths of thousands of innocents, it is worth doing.

Yet there is also a limit to how much security our deep state can obtain without crossing the line and disrespecting the rights of Americans. This is the point where lines have to be drawn. Even if it would make us safer – and it might – to grant the American government access to our every waking act and communication, we have deemed that approach a dangerous one, which invests too much power in the hands of analysts and agencies. Power corrupts, and its corruption in this case can transform this information into a weapon against our own people or in pursuit of evil ends. As Alexander Hamilton wrote: “Nothing is more common than for a free people, in times of heat and violence, to gratify momentary passions by letting into government principles and precedents which afterwards prove fatal to themselves.”

This is an overly simplistic construct. But it helps to frame things this way, because it helps illustrate how wrong the president was in his announcement today, where he essentially declared that we need to do less good spying, and we need to just trust him on the levels of bad spying.

The most troublesome announcement in Obama’s remarks today wasn’t that he would curtail the mass collection of metadata from the phones of Americans – a good step, though it will apparently just shift things around, requiring companies to hold the data, and intelligence agencies to seek approval from a secret court for access to it. Nor was it any of the other reforms announced in terms of processes and reviews for our policies going forward. It was what he had to say about spying on other citizens and leaders.

Let me now turn to the separate set of concerns that have been raised overseas and focus on America’s approach to intelligence collection abroad. As I’ve indicated, the United States has unique responsibilities when it comes to intelligence collection. Our capabilities help protect not only our nation but our friends and our allies as well.

This passage represents a disturbing vindication of a certain perspective on the entire Snowden episode, one which has become more obviously true with the passage of time. While Snowden initially represented his priorities as being those of American civil liberties and the exposure of spying on American citizens, the leaks quickly turned into tales exposing the legitimate spying activities external to the United States.

Those who have problems with this kind of activity are, at best, operating under a very naïve view of the way the world works, and at worst cynically exploiting the naïve for the purpose of evening the scales between America and its rivals and enemies… enemies who in this day and age can also be ordinary citizens first, not government officials. All the President has done by announcing restrictions on the intelligence community overseas is make war more likely, not less, by curbing the advantages that ordinarily preclude those outcomes.

In the absence of robust and intrusive intelligence capabilities, military force expands as a policy option. If you can’t surveil citizens of other nations and place data worms in their equipment to prevent their nuclear programs from working, you have to bomb them from the air instead, or worse, put boots on the ground.  If you can’t be sure of their WMD capabilities, you have to take the Dick Cheney approach and assume the worst.

Today was a victory for Snowden and his allies, but not the kind of victory civil libertarians should hope for. The restrictions on spying on American citizens announced by the president seem mostly like window dressing, adding a few hoops and a mess of paperwork to slow down the process without achieving fundamental change. But if the restrictions on spying overseas are real, and not just lip service, they represent a marked degradation of the ability of America’s intelligence community to do the job they’ve been tasked with from the beginning.

This should please Snowden and his allies. Their aim, rather than ensuring the protection of civil liberties, has turned into a broader push to restrict the footprint of the intelligence gathering efforts of the United States. It’s now a reality only made possible because of their appeal to a power structure that essentially shares their view of the proper role of America in the world.

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