I have read Edward Snowden's recent interview in the Guardian and recognize the depth of his heroism. I think he is challenging all of us on several levels. If it is possible for a double-agent to be respectable, then he has just about all I can give. That's because I beleive he is smart, conscientious and that he has the goods on the NSA. So much so that lots of people are scared to death to present them.
...remember that just because you are not the target of a surveillance program does not make it okay. The US Person / foreigner distinction is not a reasonable substitute for individualized suspicion, and is only applied to improve support for the program. This is the precise reason that NSA provides Congress with a special immunity to its surveillance.
At the core of Snowden's challenge is to consider the value of suspicionless surveillance from a cost benefit analysis to American citizenship. Most publications have picked up on that 'consent of the governed' piece. But then he throws us a deeper, moral consideration. If the NSA gives us civil libertarians pause, it is because its awesome apparatus is aimed at American citizens. Snowden challenges us further by implication - if we don't like our privacy violated because we have not given informed consent by our government, then what hope does any non-US citizen have? In this regard, Snowden is not merely asking a civil rights question, but a human rights question.
Except that he can't because there is no such thing.
Yes, I'm repeating that old line of paleo-conservatives that there is no such thing as human rights. Unless and until the actual New World Order comes into being, we are citizens of nations, and as such there are only those civil rights we are guaranteed by our constitutions, within the ambit of our nation's ability and willingness to defend them. Everything else is wishful thinking. Especially when it comes to SIGINT. It is thus absurd for anyone, especially an American vetted into the highest echelons of the American Military-Security Complex (aka Echelon) to expect some higher authority than the self-interest of American citizens to reign in that which was built for our benefit.
It comes down to the simple question of whether or not we believe that the average American will be persecuted. And that eventually comes down to whether or not we actually trust our government in this matter, and I firmly believe that will come down to cases.
My personal opinion is that I find it difficult to believe that the NSA is out of control. So long as there are appropriate controls and oversight, I think Americans' well-justified fears of abuse of NSA powers can and will prevail. I think that American military leadership will not be hushed. I also believe that the CIA and the NSA and all of the new intelligence organizations are more incompetent than evil. I have advocated for a separate MI5 domestic surveillance agency and for a separate counter-terrorism court a la Posner. Yes of course the possibility for abuse is there, but is this an area that we would rather not police? That's a tough question, and although I fall on the libertarian side of that equation, I do not believe that the system has been abused enough to justify its dismantling. This is a specie of a Cold War question of unilateral disarmament. We survived Cold War nukes. We can survive NSA snoops. But can we survive Islamist nukes without NSA snoops?
So the only real pressing question is whether or not we trust the FISA court. If we do not, and we believe that the NSA tail is wagging the FISA dog, then our problem is not at all with PRISM. Rather this is a specie of Iraq War torture. In short, either the Administration knows exactly what the NSA is doing or they don't. If they don't, then the answer lies in the direction of Snowden's admonishment - but only to the extent that we the people are willing to eyeball our consent with discipline. Of course we in the alarmed public will inevitably punt that duty to the attorney class. The law *is* transparent, isn't it? If we do know what the NSA is doing (wrong) then what is it? So. Who has disappeared? Where are all the victims of this snooping and what pain has been visted upon them by our watchdogs? Are we, in this era of Benghazi incapable of sniffing out what goes horribly wrong?
See the other side of the story here is that there probably, and I would say 95% probably, isn't very much that goes on in SIGINT that your ace hacker at DefCon or SchmooCon et al hasn't already figured out. And we also have a critical mass of people who understand very well what can and what cannot be done with data mining and all that other stuff. And to counter the paranoia, you really have to deal with more paranoia - which is to say, the people who know best what can be done hack and snoop wise, know it because they've done it themselves. And it just so happens that those people are not committing mass suicide. That's the thing about science. It works the same everywhere.
Brewster Kalhe, who first started archiving the whole of the Internet a decade ago has done the math. It would cost less than $30 million per year to build, staff and maintain the facility to capture all the phone traffic in America. NSA has got way way more than that. They can do all the video on the planet, plus satellite streams and military telemetry that most people don't even know exists. How much do you want to bet that the American intelligence establishment never wants to make a mistake about stockpiles of chemical weapons again? How much do you want to bet that they knew what was going on at Benghazi?
Which interestingly brings us back to the matter of policy and judgment. The American public can and will be deceived, and they can and will be duped by politicians who will claim to have superior moral judgment. Everybody wants only their hands on the ring of power. But who is going to decide that? Americans.
From the same pool of people who created the beast will be those who decide how long its leash shall be. Not the Chinese. Not the Koreans. Not the British or the French or the Canadians or anybody else we have decided to share the spoils of digital war. It is now and forever shall be Us vs Them. We can only hope for a better Us.
Snowden's simple challenge requires only a change of complexion, a change of policy, a new CC on the email distibution list of NSA power. But it will not destroy the beast. It's still our beast. Snowden's deeper challenge requires that the US not be the power that decides US power, and for that he's a bit late. The Cold War is over.
Unless he thinks he knows something about China that Washington doesn't already know.