Snowden - I
by Michael Brenner on 11 Jul 2020 0 Comment

Edward Snowden’s book (Permanent Record, Metropolitan Books, 2019) is not a ‘coming-of-age’ saga. It is necessary to say that at the outset. One of the peculiarities of our times is the penchant for rendering everything in terms of so-called ‘human interest’. The most profound events, the most penetrating analysis, the most stirring ideas – all are reduced to personality. Whether it is the personality of the author, a representation of the subject, or some background character. Who can write about Hillary without immediately bringing up Bill?


So, it is no surprise that the reviews of Snowden’s revelatory and instructive account of his experience place undue stress on background, his relationship with his now wife Lindsay Mills (an admirable person), his workplace colleagues. They come up dry in terms of the man. They are totally irrelevant to the crucial issues of America’s Intelligence obsession /abuse. Admittedly, Snowden does offer us a descriptive account of his life’s progression – but it is all quite prosaic.


You don’t find either ‘Snowden’ or the meaning of what he has exposed (in the book as well as in the ‘papers’) by looking at the outer contours of his life. That does not deter reviewers, of course. They are driven by three things: our culture’s pervasive voyeurism, the bottom line of whatever media company they’re writing for, and – most powerfully – an escape from the responsibility to address the grave and shameful matters that he discusses. The last is at once an intellectual challenge and a career risk.


Snowden’s awakening to the distressing and illegal activities of the NSA/CIA nexus was gradual. Omens were there early on – as was his discomfort with the Intelligence world’s ethos. He joined the CIA in 2007 just a few years after the 9/11 trauma. Let us recall that period. The country was panicked; a quiet hysteria was everywhere. So, too, a thirst for vengeance. Official Washington lived with the dread of more attacks to come. Few understood the dimensions of the threat or its mainsprings. The brooding atmosphere was like a lingering winter ground-fog. It has yet to fully disperse. The Intelligence agencies felt the imperative to act, i.e. to do something without delay. Thinking it all through was neither any office’s clear responsibility nor seen as a logical prelude to taking action.


In typical fashion the impulsive response was to mobilize resources – money and technology, the two prized assets in the United States’ Intelligence arsenal. The money was duly appropriated. How to spend it was the challenge. Disposing of $75 billion a year is not easy when you already possess an apparatus larger than that of all the world’s other Intelligence services combined. Technology came to the rescue as the quickest way to absorb all those dollars. That is to say, technology and its human consorts numbering literally in the hundreds of thousands.


Recruiters combed the universities to lay their hands on pretty much any live body that came within reach. Many bodies responded to their blandishments.  Patriotism was a big sell. So was the prospect of a well-paid, secure job. Credentials were secondary – with a couple of exceptions. Language skills were one, especially Arabic, Farsi and other neglected ‘exotic’ tongues. IT capabilities were in even greater demand. For nerds, it was like Paradise – the promised land of 77 jobs open to the bearded, the tattooed, the loners, the addicted tinkers. Diversity left room for the conventional, too.


Snowden was pretty conventional on most counts. Consumed by IT to the point of neglecting his formal studies, he had an independent cast of mind, unawed by authority, but not a born rebel. After kicking around in a number of schools and jobs interspersed with a stint in the Army, he wound up applying to a position advertised at a consulting firm called COMSO. He was 23. (Snowden never bothered to find out what the acronym stood for; apparently it’s owned by BAEA Systems). A few exchanges of electronic correspondence led to an interview in a non-descript office in a non-descript building in Greenbelt, Maryland with an everyman non-descript recruiter.


A cursory conversation concluded with the man telling Snowden “the job is yours, Edward. What sort of salary are you looking for?” Snowden’s $50k request rose to $62k at the man’s prodding – he was bent on getting the amount as high as reasonably possible. Why? His outfit wasn’t going to pay it; rather, the U.S. government via the CIA would with the recruiting company getting a fixed percentage. ‘Cost-plus” is what they call it. These were (are) the terms on which roughly 80% of the ‘contractors’ who make up the NSA (and technical CIA workforce) got their jobs. Some switch to the more secure status of a straight government employee, some jump back and forth - as did Snowden.


In effect, the famed Intelligence community turned over recruiting responsibilities for staffing the great “War On Terror” to private, for-profit firms. Some were big defense contractors like Lockheed Martin – others small-time operations that acted as little more than a dating service. A strong preference was given to candidates who had advanced skills and some experience. The NSA and CIA didn’t want to be bothered training them. It did, though, take six months to indoctrinate and to socialize them.


As Snowden writes: “restructuring your intelligence agencies so that your most sensitive systems were being run by somebody who really didn’t work for you was what passed for innovation”. It did line the pockets of both the dating services and the top administrators who would eventually parachute into lavishly paid positions at those same outfits.


Security clearances? A formality. Given that 835,000 people have wound up with TOP SECRET clearances, it was derisory. A Mickey Mouse polygraph exam: “have you ever been a member or supporter of al-Qaeda?...”. A cheap sedative would get you through even if you did have something awkward to hide. Background checks were of the kind done by shop-worn FBI agents in regional offices who show up in a professor’s office with a checklist of banal questions. “Has Jane Doe, to the best of your knowledge, ever belonged to an organization that seeks the overthrow of the United States government? To the best of your knowledge, is Jane Doe addicted to any illegal substance or engaged in alcohol abuse?” An honest answer would be: “How the hell do I know?”


Never having had the pleasure of being invited to a pre-dawn gathering of her and her confederates where they practiced suicide bombings while under the influence of the drug of the month, all I could say was ‘NO’. The likelihood of having provided cover for a sleeper agent of a terrorist organization was virtually non-existent. The sober truth is that the number of such who have surfaced since 9/11 numbers is in the low single digits. Those few slipped through the fingers of an FBI whose considerable resources were spent entrapping and directing poor sods who, left to their own devices, never would have gotten up from their bar stools or dragged themselves away from their PCs.


Such security measures as existed at the time of Snowden’s recruitment were ill-suited to identify a dedicated young American whose intelligence, courage and integrity prompted him to take the risk of revealing that the Intelligence agencies he worked for were violating the law and the Constitution on the orders of three successive Presidents and their appointees. In theory, agents of hostile governments (a bestiary now composed of Russia, Iran, China, Hezbullah, Syria and the ever-menacing Mr. Maduro in Caracas) could have taken advantage of the Intelligence agencies slapdash recruiting methods and flawed IT security to penetrate into those ever-expanding data banks. None have managed what Snowden did – at least not from the inside. They could have – if the intent existed.


Just respond to a job announcement inserted by the non-descript man in the non-descript office (and take that sedative when they hook you up to the polygraph). Ironically, one of Snowden’s frustrations before government criminality wracked his conscience was the lackadaisical response of his superiors to his pointing out the seriousness of those flaws – and more serious technical flaws in their systems - and to his recommendations for remedying them. His initiative produced nothing in the way of remediation.


The system – organization, modes, persons – Snowden describes exhibits some singular features. Most striking is the disproportionate effort and resources devoted to its maintenance. His arrival came at the moment when the CIA and NSA were charging ahead full-bore to build and deploy a vast, high tech apparatus for accumulating, storing and sifting vast amounts of Intelligence data. That involved hardware, software, real estate, dense networks of personnel scattered around the globe and – not least – an intricate, multi-layered organizational complex. Communication was the common denominator. 


Communications among unwitting sources picked up by a mind-boggling array of surveillance devices; communications within the Intelligence administration – horizontally, vertically, matrixed, into storage sites, out of storage sites; communication among technicians, analysts, directors, and policy-makers. The last, of course, was least developed or standardized. Witness Mr. Tenet, Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Cheney.


Maintaining the systems consumed the lion’s share of the resources.  Actual deployment /activation was relatively cheap. Transmission/storage was(is) another ‘gas-guzzler’. Add in the enormous waste and redundancy involved in relying on a galaxy of predatory contracting firms, and you have the answer as how to spend $80 billion annually while accomplishing very little of value. 


Further evidence of how pervasive is the technology driven operations of the IC is the disparagement of human Intelligence. We do know that this shift began several years before 9/11. Still, when Snowden arrived in Geneva on his first overseas assignment, the CIA still was hunting and signing up real live sources. Even Snowden the nerd was mobilized to try his hand – despite an aversion to gala parties and alcohol. An expatriate Saudi supposedly involved in oil and money had been identified as someone to look into. Snowden was told to make the first contact before passing him on to a ‘pro’. This episode quickly turns comedic – not because of Snowden’s naivete, but due to the bumbling of his senior operator. The latter wound up being recalled to Maclean. The humiliated Saudi wound up back in the Kingdom nursing a life-long grudge against the Yanks who had pulled the rug out from under his posh Geneva sedan chair.


Coincidentally, this incident occurred just about the time that the CIA honchos made the fateful decision to drop those old-fashioned methods of seducing /buying /blackmailing /running agents. The substitute method was simplicity itself. Predictably, it was technology grounded, antiseptic and did away with the need for most human faculties. Step 1: identify somebody who might know something worth having. Step 2: ‘tap’ as many of his/her electronic communications as possible. Collect and store the data for future ‘algorithm-ifaction’.  Installation, the only sensitive part of the process, became progressively easier as surveillance technology developed ever greater sophistication. Clean & easy.


HUMINT was being marginalized just as old-fashioned SIGNET was being recast as “cyber-intelligence”. That foreshadow the morphing of “mass surveillance’ into “bulk collection” and “metadata” – the former connotation suggesting the bi-annual municipal trash service and the latter impressive but unfrightening.


By 2011, Snowden – now promoted to a bigger job with expanded access – was fully aware that the United States was committed to a massive, global strategy of electronic surveillance. The ultimate aim was to assemble a vast horde of data about everyone who conceivably was worth tracking, and hundreds of millions about whom you knew nothing. BUT about whom you might want to know something at some future time – whether on the basis of specific reference or the algorithm printouts. That realization left him deeply disturbed.


Moreover, a harsh truth was emerging. The developing system paid scant attention to legal constraints or privacy rights of any kind. Indeed, a powerful logic was at work that was driving the process toward a total disregard for the Fourth Amendment. Its strictures could not be accommodated by the technology – hardware & software. The organizational momentum within the Intelligence agencies steamrolled all other considerations. Regard for the sensibilities of foreign governments didn’t figure in the equation. Precedent setting and possible retaliation similarly were given no thought (“this is America – isn’t it!”). The emotions that fueled the War On Terror were still eclipsing reason – and they were being inflamed by politicos around the country.


Finally, there was unanimity among higher-ups – in the Intelligence agencies, in Congress, in the courts, in the Justice Department and in the White House under three successive Presidents   - in holding to the view that the law had to bend before the exigencies of the threatening times. The Privacy vs Security trade-off as it mistakenly was called by all and sundry – including renowned law professors writing in the New York Review of Books and other esteemed places. In truth it was a conflict between the Law and Lawlessness. The difference between the two formulations is elementary – but fundamental.


The concept of “security vs privacy” has no standing whatsoever in the law –  regardless of the standing it might have in the policy realm or philosophical discourse. (‘Mitigating circumstances’ may be acknowledged; however, they come into play only at the sentencing stage. A crime is a crime is a crime). The readiness to obscure that difference, therefore, had nothing to do with intellect. Rather, it demonstrated that we were not ready to go down a road to where Constitution met political expediency.  That attitude has contributed to the persecution of Snowden.


There is a straightforward way to reconcile the two. If one feels that the privacy vs security balance is weighed too heavily in the privacy direction, then there is a method for shifting it, i.e. pass new legislation &/or constitutional amendment. Of course, if you are in panic mode and believe that the exigencies are so acute as to put the Republic at risk, then you are tempted to circumvent the law - especially easy to do when the President is directing you under prodding by the Vice-President.


(To be concluded…)

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top