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Friday, July 05, 2013

 
Spying vs leaking

by digby

Spencer Ackerman has a good piece in the Guardian about this cavalier accusation  among some of our leaders, both in government and in the political press, that Edward Snowden has been actively aiding "the enemy." He specifically discusses something that I've been wondering about as well --- what's the difference between a whistleblower and a spy? (Or if you prefer, a leaker and a spy.)
According to US legislators and journalists, the surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden actively aided America's enemies. They are just missing one essential element for the meme to take flight: evidence.

An op-ed by Representative Mike Pompeo (Republican, Kansas) proclaiming Snowden, who provided disclosed widespread surveillance on phone records and internet communications by the National Security Agency, "not a whistleblower" is indicative of the emerging narrative. Writing in the Wichita Eagle on 30 June Pompeo, a member of the House intelligence committee, wrote that Snowden "has provided intelligence to America's adversaries".

Pompeo correctly notes in his op-ed that "facts are important". Yet when asked for the evidence justifying the claim that Snowden gave intelligence to American adversaries, his spokesman, JP Freire, cited Snowden's leak of NSA documents. Those documents, however, were provided to the Guardian and the Washington Post, not al-Qaeda or North Korea.

It's true that information published in the press can be read by anyone, including people who mean America harm. But to conflate that with actively handing information to foreign adversaries is to foreclose on the crucial distinction between a whistleblower and a spy, and makes journalists the handmaidens of enemies of the state.

Yet powerful legislators are eager to make that conflation about Snowden.

The Twitter account of Representative Mike Rogers (Republican, Michigan), the chairman of the House intelligence committee, on 18 June placed Snowden and accused WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning in the same company as Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, two infamous CIA and FBI double-agents. (The tweet appears to have been deleted.)

When I asked about the conflation, Rogers' Twitter account responded: "All 4 gave critical national security information to our enemies. Each did it in different ways but the result was the same."

Never to be outdone, Peter King, a New York Republican and former chair of the House homeland security committee, proclaimed Snowden a "defector" on 10 June. Days later, Snowden left Hong Kong to seek asylum in an undetermined country – a curious move for a defector to make.

Once elected and appointed leaders casually conflate leaking and espionage, it is a matter of time before journalists take the cue. For insight into the "fear and isolation that NSA leaker Edward Snowden is living through", CNN turned to Christopher Boyce – who sold US secrets to the USSR before becoming a bank robber.

That's just daft. Spies secretly give or sell information to an enemy, they explicitly don't make the information public. After all, if the point is to help a foreign power, they would hope the US government would not know they had done it. Spilling the information all over the world defeats that purpose.

Anyway, Ackerman's piece discusses all this in some depth and it's well worth a read. He concludes with this:
By all means, consider Snowden a hero, a traitor or a complex individual with a mixture of motives and interests. Lots of opinions about Snowden are valid. He is a necessarily polarizing figure. The information he revealed speaks to some of the most basic questions about the boundaries between the citizen and the state, as well as persistent and real anxieties about terrorism.

What isn't valid is the blithe assertion, absent evidence, that the former NSA contractor actively collaborated with America's enemies. Snowden made classified information about widespread surveillance available to the American public. That's a curious definition of an enemy for US legislators to adopt.
Well, not so strange when you think about it.


Update: Just one random thought here. Ackerman says this speaks to "persistent and real anxieties about terrorism" which I think is right. But how does that track with the accusation that he's a defector or a spy for "Communist China and Russia?" The last I heard, the terrorist threat comes from small groups of religious fanatics that cross all national boundaries. In fact, it's pretty clear that Russia, at least, is battling the same enemy at least to the extent that pair of losers up in Boston are part of the Global Terrorist Threat.

I find it quite revealing that some people have so easily slipped into a Cold War framework on this thing. I thought the only ones who still saw the world in those terms were the unreconstructed neocons. Maybe everyone just needs to stop binge watching old episodes of Mad Men for a while. It isn't 1964 anymore.


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