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A Critique of the Latest Snowden Disclosures

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Thursday, August 29, 2013 at 5:04 PM

The world now has extraordinary access to the details of how the United States operates and funds its intelligence agencies, courtesy of Edward Showden and the Washington Post.  This will lead to no good.  It makes friendly countries nervous about what we can do, and unfriendly countries happy about what we can’t do.  This kind of information also tells our adversaries about the structure and focus of our efforts, including by implication the approximate number of agents we’re training.  We have committees of Congress who receive these details.  That’s how a representative democracy works.   Putting the information out for general consumption is not in the public’s interest if the public is serious about wanting a robust foreign intelligence capability—which is now an open question.  You cannot run intelligence by plebiscite.
The breathless character of the Post’s reporting isn’t helpful either, with talk of an intelligence “empire.”  Of course the agencies have big budgets.  We are asking them to do difficult and dangerous missions all over the world and at the same time support a war in Asia and operations in Syria and Iraq.  They’re over-stretched.  That’s the real story.
These disclosures by Snowden again pose the question of how a low-level geek like him was permitted the access to gather this kind of information.  The fact that he could do so suggests a failure to think strategically about real counterintelligence risk.  In the past, the intelligence agencies saw their mission as divided between collection, analysis, and reporting.  Everything else was a support function.  This is no longer true.  The handling and dissemination of data is now a core, strategic function of the intelligence business, and we are witnessing a strategic failure to do it well.
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