You can't make this stuff up. The Guardian has revealed its source to be NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who (not surprisingly) appears to be a fierce advocate of online freedom and privacy and who (perhaps surprisingly) appears to be residing in China for the time being. Seriously, China.
What next? There's no doubt that criminal charges will be filed against Snowden sooner or later (the only interesting question on that front is whether he ever ends up in U.S. custody (he mentions seeking asylum in Iceland in the article)). But that is a comparatively narrow issue compared to others his story implicates. A few of those larger issues include:
1. Counterintelligence and Private Contractors: What does this episode tell us, if anything, about the impact of relying on private contractors for Intelligence Community work? More specifically, does the story expose a counterintelligence vulnerability?
2. The Globalized Fourth Estate as a Check: What if anything can the government do at this point to stem the flow of leaks from Snowden's disclosures? Here it may matter hugely that Snowden went to the Guardian and not, say, the Times (though given the Post's willingness to publish the PRISM story, maybe not). This reminds me of the following observations that Jack offered in his most-recent book:
WikiLeaks is a piece of a larger technologically inspired trend that is relocating the center of gravity of U.S. national security reporting outside the United States. In March 2011, many non-U.S. newspapers reported on ties between Raymond Davis, an American arrested in Pakistan for shooting two civilians, and the CIA. The New York Times had the story but temporarily withheld it because the Obama administration argued that disclosing his identity would put his life at risk. The Times hesitated for the same reason that Leonard Downie Jr. withheld the location of the secret prisons. The American press considers U.S. national security interests in the publication balance, and it sometimes self-censors out of deference to U.S. national security. “We are on the team, but we can’t be on the team,” acknowledges Seymour Hersh, articulating the tension. Non-U.S. media organizations, by contrast, give no weight to U.S. national security concerns. American journalists displayed “a willingness to work with us,” says former CIA Director Michael Hayden. But with foreign media like WikiLeaks and Al Jazeera, “it’s very, very difficult,” he adds. “Other than perhaps making use of an allied relationship, you’re kind of out of Schlitz.” The growing scrutiny of American military and intelligence operations by the technologically empowered global media, and its relative indifference to U.S. government pleas, are still further reasons why U.S. government secrets are harder than ever to keep.
The central role played by the Guardian in the unfolding Snowden story powerfully validates that view. For better or worse, the globalized Fourth Estate is playing a powerful checking function here, though also one that is in no way accountable to American voters. Such is the world we now live in.