Street Corner Soapbox: Edward Snowden, A Slacker or the Man Who Set Us Free?
Snowden began leaking documents June 2013 that revealed a global surveillance apparatus run by the NSA. Still in exile, is he a hero or the villian in this story?
When National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden started leaking the agency's top-secret documents last summer, a lot of Inside-the-Beltway journalists were quick on the attack.
Politico's Roger Simon called Snowden "The slacker who came in from the cold," and accused the contractor – "possessing all the qualifications of a grocery bagger" – of whistleblowing on the NSA as a kind of psychological compensation for failing to attain an advanced degree or finish his military training. "We've screwed this up," said New York Times columnist, Andrew Ross Sorkin, "to even let him get to Russia." Sorkin, apparently forgetting he was a member of the media and not of the government, also called for the arrest of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who worked with Snowden to break the NSA story.
The Washington Post's Walter Pincus – a hereto respected name in investigative reporting – wrote an embarrassing column for his paper, accusing Snowden of working for Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, a column that later earned no less than three paragraphs of corrections from the paper's editor. Another WaPo columnist, Richard Cohen, called Greenwald, "vainglorious," and Snowden, "a cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood." It's not like the Washington Post's editorial board blushed over these opinions; in July, the paper ran a patronizing editorial advising Snowden to turn himself in before he "harms efforts to fight terrorism and conduct legitimate intelligence operations."
It's been a long time since last summer – a long, long, cold time – and we've since learned a lot about the "legitimate intelligence operations" that the NSA has been conducting.
We learned that the NSA has access to Americans' Google and Yahoo! accounts. We learned that the NSA logs all of our cell phone traffic. That the NSA has access to our instant messages and smartphone applications and monitors the online data, not only of millions of ordinary Americans, but tens of millions of ordinary people across the globe. We learned that the NSA's program to collect Internet metadata is called, "Boundless Informant."
We learned that the NSA hacked into Google and Yahoo! data centers to better monitor our Internet traffic. We learned that the NSA has worked with tech companies to build backdoor exploits in software in order to hack into networks. We learned that the NSA intercepts hardware deliveries for surveillance targets, and builds in backdoor exploits into servers, routers, even USB plugs – some are speculating that Apple's recent security patches for its computer and iPhone operating systems were to fix NSA-implanted vulnerabilities.
We learned that the NSA spied on foreign diplomats, embassies, and world leaders. We learned that the U.S. spied on our allies and tapped the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and as many as 35 other prominent heads of government. That the NSA and its British counterpart monitored the delegates at the recent G20 summit – and not out of any security concern, but to gain advantages in trade negotiations. We learned that the NSA has been involved in corporate espionage. The NSA hacked into the network of the Brazilian oil company, Petrobas, and has been spying on Venezuela's state-run oil company, PDVSA.
We learned that the powers of the NSA are often abused by government workers and contractors. We learned that there were 2,776 violations of the NSA's rules from March 2011 to March 2012 alone. We learned the acronym, LOVEINT – or "love intelligence" – which stands for the practice of NSA officers to use the agency's powers to spy on spouses or partners.
We also learned that the NSA deliberately plants misinformation on the Internet to ruin the reputation of targeted individuals. Among the targets of the NSA's misinformation campaign were members of the hacktavist collective, "Anonymous." And we most recently learned that the NSA assisted their British counterpart, The Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), in collecting images, many of them sexually explicit, from Yahoo! webcam chats of more than 1.8 million users between 2008 and 2012.
In short, we learned that the NSA, working together with other surveillance agencies and with the support and assistance from a number of technology and telecomm corporations, has created a vast, global surveillance system, operates with little or no oversight, and targets data collection indiscriminately.
And what we've learned pisses us off. Polls taken of U.S. citizens as late as January show that two-thirds of Americans were concerned by the revelations of the NSA's programs and activities. In response, President Barack Obama has proposed reform of the agency – which most privacy advocates pan – and Congress will likely address it, as well. And Glenn Greenwald won a Polk Award in Journalism for his reporting of the NSA story – a shift away from the initial calls for his arrest.
But what about Edward Snowden? By now it's obvious the whistleblower has done the American public an enormous favor. It's also fairly clear none of these programs could have been questioned had Snowden gone through the official channels.
"We could have explained to Mr. Snowden his misperceptions, his lack of understanding of what we do," said NSA Inspector General, George Ellard, in a recent public appearance on the probable result of a "proper" complaint filed by the NSA contractor.
We're thankful that he didn't.
Jay Stevens can be contacted at Jay@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @Snevets_Yaj.