Snowden: What's the Harm?

By Joel Brenner
Monday, January 27, 2014, 4:30 PM

What harm has Edward Snowden done to his country?

When Snowden asserts that the National Security Agency listens to encrypted Russian diplomatic traffic, it takes the Russians about twenty minutes to shut it down.  An operation like that can take many years to put in place.  When he explains exactly how NSA can implant devices that make it possible to extract information even from isolated networks of hostile governments, those operations will die on the vine.  When he identifies specific networks of adversaries that we have penetrated and the exact locations from which we have done it, he effectively shuts those operations down.  When he and his backers assert that NSA penetrates Google and Yahoo and Facebook servers overseas---when the truth is that NSA may target the foreign terrorist-linked users of those services---he wounds the businesses of creative, successful American companies.  When he identifies legitimate, and legitimately secret, arrangements by which foreign governments cooperate with the United States in pooling resources to track foreign terrorists, he sows pandemonium among Western allies.  When you educate terrorists day after day with these and other revelations, they learn their lessons, and indeed collection against terrorist networks has fallen off sharply.  These are the hostile actions of a self-righteous megalomaniac---hostile to the United States, hostile to liberal democracy, hostile to the West---and it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that their results were intended.

That Snowden also started an overdue public discussion of a metadata collection program authorized by Congress and more than a dozen federal judges---but not understood by many Americans---cannot be denied.  But those disclosures comprise only a fraction of his program of stealing and broadcasting classified information that otherwise has nothing to do with the privacy and civil liberties of citizens of the United States and allied nations.

Lawfare’s round-up of press coverage of Snowden’s spilled secrets begins to tally the score.  Some of these articles discuss techniques that are known to commercial technical experts, though not necessarily to intelligence targets.  Others are---or rather were---the deepest of state secrets.  For a portrait of Snowden and his allies, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks and Glenn Greenwald, see Sean Wilentz, “Would You Feel Differently About Snowden, Greenwalk, and Assange if You Knew What They Really Thought."