The End of the Snowden Operation

For over half a year now, the world has been astounded by waves of leaked revelations of National Security Agency electronic espionage, provided by the former NSA IT contractor Edward Snowden, who stole something like 1.7 million classified documents before fleeing to Russia via Hong Kong. There’s never been anything quite like this in the annals of America’s – or really anybody’s – intelligence system. Snowden’s act and its global media reverberations have been one of a kind.

From nearly the outset, I have drawn attention to the obvious foreign intelligence connections to the Snowden case – and obvious they are to anyone familiar with counterintelligence, particularly Russian – and for some time I have termed this sorry spectacle the Snowden Operation, since we don’t know the covername actually given it by Russian intelligence. But, at its core, this is simply an updated version of the operational game played in the 1970s by Cuban and Soviet intelligence with the CIA defector Phil Agee (KGB covername: PONT), who authored, with KGB “help,” several books exposing U.S. intelligence operations, particularly in Latin America. While Agee didn’t tell the Cubans and Soviets much classified that they didn’t really know already, at least generally, for Washington, DC, and particularly for CIA, it was a huge embarrassment that hampered activities in many countries for many years.

The Snowden Operation has been really no more than the Agee show brought into the 21st century and the Internet age. Who needs whole books of leaks when there are websites and “journalists” happy to disseminate it all, usually with deeply flawed “analysis” to boot? Over the last seven months the world has become accustomed to regular leaks of NSA programs that, before last May, individually would have been jaw-dropping in many capitals. Now, well, it’s just Tuesday.

Additionally, the Snowden Operation has engendered not merely complications for U.S. foreign policy, but a blistering domestic debate to boot, just as its architects intended. There is now a considerable cadre of Americans, an odd alliance of leftist bitter-enders, libertarian Randians, and battalions of dudebros who thrive on snark and hating their parents, that is convinced that NSA is the source of all their problems. That this is demonstrably untrue has made little difference, and will not.

However, yesterday President Obama ended the political debate about the Snowden Operation with his much-anticipated speech about NSA and reform, based on the recommendations of his own panel. As my colleague Tom Nichols and I have long predicted, the reform package Obama has delivered is a stinging defeat for the NSA haters. Yes, it will be more difficult for NSA analysts to access metadata, but access it they will. Yes, NSA collection against top foreign leaders will be restricted, somewhat, but Agency support to U.S. and Allied diplomacy will continue. The bottom line is that President Obama’s reforms contain no significant changes to how NSA does business as the leading foreign intelligence agency in the United States and the free world.

These reforms go some distance to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens better, which I’ve wanted for a long time anyway, but even the changes to metadata holdings have been kicked by Obama to Congress for resolution, which will be difficult, since telecom companies understandably have little interest in involving themselves further in what’s become a touchy mess. In all, Obama – many of whose national security policies of late I’ve been critical of – performed masterfully yesterday, delivering a near pitch-perfect speech and resetting the agenda on intelligence matters.

Predictably, the NSA haters have gone bonkers. Somehow, in a fest of self-delusion that must rival anything done by the Reverend Jim Jones to his ill-fated followers, many convinced themselves that Obama might shut down NSA and have its leaders frog-walked into Federal custody, if not simply shot without trial. Alas, nothing of the sort was ever going to happen. In part because no White House will ever shut down its top source of foreign intelligence, or can afford to. But mostly because the hysterical charges we’ve seen thrown at NSA – that it violates the privacy of “hundreds of millions,” many American – for months were essentially false.

Haters will hate, as is their wont, and I’ve frankly enjoyed the bouts of online hysteria from Snowden fanboys since yesterday, involving a gnashing of teeth of epic proportions (for a so-perfect-it-cannot-be-parodied combination of ignorance and sanctimony, Conor Friedersdorf is impossible to top). But the game’s over, Obama just blew the whistle.

There’s much work to be done, naturally, and Congress will spend the rest of 2014 hashing out just what the President’s reforms should actually look like in application (expect a long, needlessly drawn out catfight on The Hill, like everything there), but the White House has shut the door on the ridiculous, overheated spectacle that the Snowden Operation dumped on our Intelligence Community.

None have any expectation that the leaks will stop, given the unimaginably huge amount of Top Secret documents from NSA and Allied agencies that Snowden stole, but the humdrum effect has already set in. The world has become accustomed to such a regular barrage of revelations about NSA that, unless the Iranians are correct that aliens really are running things at Fort Meade (they’re not, I checked), few of these will be front page stories any longer.

The Snowden Operation has guaranteed that NSA has become a global stand-in for unmitigated evil for certain people, a Keyser Söze who reads your email,and there’s not much that Washington, DC, and its friends can do about that. But the real intent of Ed, Glenn, and their coterie was never intelligence reform, rather the destruction of NSA and the Western intelligence alliance. As of yesterday, we know that will not happen. Henceforth, you’ll occasionally encounter people who are obsessed with “NSA” and think the Agency reads their texts of cat pictures, but these are the same sort of people who, in a previous age, were obsessed with Knights Templar, Jews, and Masons, and can be ignored when adults are talking.

I say “NSA” because the global meme fostered online by the Snowden Operation bears so little resemblance to what the Agency actually is and does. Planet Greenwald has done a weirdly masterful job of placing “NSA” in the same category as “UFOs”, “Kennedy Assassination,” “Bigfoot,” and “Area 51”: there actually is something deep down there that might possibly be true, but it’s so buried under hyperbole and fantasy as to be unfathomable as any reality.

I say this with regret, as someone who was calling for reforms of the Intelligence Community, especially NSA, before anybody heard of Edward Snowden. Real reform is impossible now, for at least a generation, because the Snowden Operation has so soiled the cause of real IC reform with treachery, narcissism, crankery, and Putin’s Russia. I worry that today’s modest reforms may not be able to keep up with rapid changes in IT. Privacy concerns about NSA are entirely valid, and had the Snowden Operation confined its leaks to issues of purely domestic surveillance, that healthy and necessary debate about post-9/11 intelligence might have happened, at last. But Ed went to Russia, where he remains. The real drivers of the Snowden Operation never sought a domestic debate about NSA, that was never their agenda, so here we are. Winston Churchill famously termed the Allied victory at El Alamein in late 1942 as not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Now we’re a bit further along than that in the Snowden Operation.

Discussions of NSA and especially “NSA” will be prominent online and in the real world for years to come. The Agency has lost its cover, for better or worse. As I’ve said before, I hope the Agency uses this opportunity to rebrand itself in a spirit of openness to the American people about its essential mission, which the public has a right to know more about. Regardless, the Agency will survive and its personnel – military, civilian, and contractor – will keep protecting our country and our allies. Before long people will be asking, “What ever happened to that ‘strange guy‘ who defected to Russia?” Once the Snowden Operation kicked off – when exactly that was remains an open question of high interest to counterintelligence investigators in dozens of countries – there was never going to be any other outcome.