Imagine, you were a big government agency with formidable powers and resources.
Imagine, you were using these resources not only to – as you claim or make yourself believe – protect the people in your country but also to further your government’s economic and diplomatic interests. To do this, you use practices that are at best morally questionable and at worst unconstitutional and unlawful. Yet, you don’t have much to fear for doing it because everything you do is so secret that no one can find out about it. You hide behind a convenient notion of “classified information”. And if that doesn’t work you frighten people by maintaining that if you tell them what is really going on behind those curtains of yours, “the terrorists” will win.
People who do try and tell others about it, you make out as traitors, endorsers or collaborators of terrorists, or spies of foreign powers. They are persecuted and prosecuted under one antiquated law and another more recent law that came into force – and was then subsequently altered to your advantage – in the wake of a terrible incident that frightened the people in your country so much that they thought it was a good idea to give up some of their liberties and rights in favour of security. It doesn’t matter to you that you never actually asked them if they were ready to do that.
Now imagine, someone came along and blew the lid off it all. He let the people know what you were doing and dared ask the question whether or not this was right or lawful and whether the people should actually have a conversation about these practices that so clearly and adversely affected them.
What would you do? What would the government do? Admit to wrongdoing? Welcome these disclosures that provide a chance of speaking openly about what is going wrong? Surrender some of your power to liberty and democracy and the rights of your people?
Rather, I’d imagine, you would deny many of the charges. You would claim that the story has been told wrong, that is has been misreported. You would maintain that you were acting strictly within the law but that you have difficulty proving that because any proof would, pretty quickly, touch that classified information you hold so sacred.
You would also try to acquire the person who blew the whistle on you. You and your government would exert all your power, all your leverage to get that person back, resulting in some major diplomatic fall-outs.
Yet, that person remains elusive. Someone you really do not like very much sticks a finger in your eye and refuses to turn that person over.
Internationally, the person is getting increased attention and support with more and more people speaking out in their defense, asking for them to be protected, watching closely what will become of them and how you are conducting yourself.
Now, even if you did acquire this person, there would be a lot of attention around the world as to how they would be treated. Not that this would bother you particularly if you managed to put them on trial because the last person you arrested got attention too – if perhaps not quite so much – and they still spent months in solitary confinement, only to be sentenced to 35 years in prison.
The fact that this person, this whistleblower that eludes you now, was able to outsmart your considerable powers and keep you guessing for months as so how they did it or exactly what information they took from you, smarts. The fact that you cannot get your hands on them irks you.
And these things simply will not go away. This time, you cannot easily put out the multiple fires that keep erupting, no matter how much you and your friends try. You coax, you intimidate, you bully – it doesn’t really work.
People still want to know about what you were doing, they want to have a conversation rather badly. You tell them that this would endanger their security but many of them are willing to take that risk and anyway, you cannot really back that claim up with any concrete evidence.
By and by, it emerges that the people at the top of your organizational structure are in themselves liabilities because they have done questionable, if not unlawful, things. Your reputation thus tarnished and with increasing protest against you, and your government, you would probably try to tarnish the reputation of the person who told on you in turn.
You would try over and over again to make him appear a spy, a traitor, a felon, a cheater, someone who is a hopeless narcissist, craving public attention – one of the “bad guys” that people need to be protected from.
You say he was “cultivated” by a foreign power but, again, you fail to back that claim up with any concrete evidence.
This goes on for some time. Increasingly, opinion turns against you. People who were formerly merely skeptical or even indulging of your position become more critical. They demand answers.
Others keep demanding protection for the person that has made them aware of what you are doing. They award them prizes, they even nominate them for a Nobel Peace Prize they call them “hero” and “whistleblower”, asking that he be offered clemency, a pardon, safety.
You realize that perhaps you have been outdone. You may have underestimated this person, the public response, and you may just have overestimated you own influence.
You need evidence that this person is not what people believe them to be. You need it not only to make this go away and to justify keeping your powers.
You also need it to justify yourself because, on top of it all, it looks like this is a massive security mess-up on your own part.
In short, you need to make yourself look good again and them bad.
So you produce the evidence. Or so you say.
You are the NSA.
In this scenario at least. And that person who is such a stone in your show is of course Edward Snowden. Whistleblower Edward Snowden, I might add. Not Russian or Chinese spy, password stealer Edward Snowden who could not possibly have absconded with troves of evidence of your wrongdoing all by himself, as even the FBI maintains, and therefore had to steal other people’s passwords.
Clearly, you say, he must have done. How could he have obtained all this information alone, with a webcrawler no less? Surely, he had help. And since he did, surely that means that his motives are questionable: either he had help from a foreign power, in which case he is a spy, or he tricked people into giving them their passwords to allow himself access to parts of your system that he would not normally have been able to access. Which makes him a liar and a cheat.
And then, suddenly, just when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (allegedly a felon for lying to Congress) has said that security at your end really was a bit shit, suddenly that evidence appears.
An internal memo published by NBC news maintains that Edward Snowden tricked at least one co-worker out of their password. That co-worker and two other employees have since been made to leave. So you say. You do not name that co-worker. You do not name any of the other people. The memo – the only evidence to support these allegations – is “sketchy”.
The memo says that “[t]hree NSA affiliates have been implicated in this matter: an NSA civilian employee, an active duty military member and a contractor. The civilian employee recently resigned from employment at NSA.”
You say that this is part of “steps that the National Security Agency (NSA) has taken to assign accountability related to the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by former contractor Edward Snowden”.
What you do not say is what exactly you mean by “assigning accountability”.
What you do not say is “we are still trying to find out how this could have happened.”
What you are saying is “we are telling you how this happened, and we expect you to believe us.”
Now, pardon me if I am not quite convinced.
To me, this does not sound as if you were “disciplining people for allowing breaches of security to happen”, i.e. taking responsibility for want went wrong under your own roof, but rather as if you were making an “effort to find people to take the fall for something the agency did not prevent from happening.”
Note that former whistleblower William Binney has explained that “NSA never developed and implemented technology in order to have the capabilities to track activities by employees on the agency’s systems.”
The reason is interesting: “The analysts “realized that what that would be doing is monitoring everything they did and assessing what they were doing. They objected. They didn’t want to be monitored” and have their privacy violated.”
So, NSA analysts are having problems with their privacy being violated but, NSA, you demand of the rest of us that we should happily give up our privacy in the service of national security.
It is this kind of double standard, amongst other things, that makes what you say appear just a little bit fabricated to suit your own ends.
In light of your inability to acquire Edward Snowden, or to stop your failures from being discussed, you are now assigning blame by proxy.
You may consider yourself lucky because some of the media, like Time, the Daily Mail (no surprises there) – of course NBC who scooped the memo – and even Reuters are lapping it up quite readily, reporting your accusations (for this is what they are) as fact, even though these claims are based entirely on something you say, something you have written to Congress.
Some articles reflect that: “The unnamed civilian employee who worked with Snowden resigned last month after the government revoked his security clearance, according to a letter that NSA legislative director Ethan L. Bauman sent this week to the House Judiciary Committee. A military employee and a private contractor also lost their access to NSA data as part of the continuing investigation by the FBI, Bauman said” (emphases added).
It goes on in this way: “Baumann said…”, “Bauman said….”, “Baumann said….” Exposing these allegations for what they actually are: hearsay.
To be fair, some reports reflect a more balanced view. The Washington Post for example offers arguments made by both sides, and Reuters reporters who broke the original password story last November.
Yet many of the media never bother to question for a second that someone who has been telling untruths since before the start of this whole affair might not be being truthful now. They do not question this so-called “evidence” of yours, even though there is more than enough reason to do so. NBC itself calls the memo “sketchy”.
More than that, what the media that so readily report this as fact, fail to recognize – yet again – are experiences of former whistleblowers like Thomas Drake, who reminds us that “I had people pressured by NSA into making up stuff (including statements) about me and my character and obtaining information as well as purloining and stealing documents from NSA for the purposes of disclosing them to people”—reporters—”not authorized to receive them.”
Like Snowden, Drake says that he “I acted alone without any ‘help.’”
Similarly, Snowden’s supporters have voiced their scepticism, if not outright disbelief, at these allegations: Glenn Greenwald tweeted on Thursday: “there’s no reason to be the slightest bit skeptical about a memo prepared by the NSA about Snowden & intended for public release #USMedia.”
Similarly, Jesselyn Radack, of the Government Accountability project and a staunch supporter of Edward Snowden, tweeted: #NSA says #Snowden stole ppl’s pswords #Snowden denies it Ahem, who has been consistently lying throughout this saga?
Thomas Drake has called into question the content and intention of the memo; “Clear NSA wants to strip #Snowden of any w’blower disclosure or public interest defense & say he did not act alone.”
We have all seen some of the powers the NSA has, or the lengths to which it is willing to use them. Now it seems that it “is simply choosing to believe that Snowden did not act alone. They are demonstrating something called confirmation bias.” They are looking for and manufacturing evidence to “prove” their allegations.” Or, by the simple act of forcing people out of the agency, they are creating the perception that those people played a role in Snowden’s act.”
Note that these are implications which disregard “the conclusions of the FBI’s own investigators” that Snowden did act alone.
Much of the media fails to take this into account.
If they do take it into account, they suggest that Mr Snowden is lying – an idea that fits in nicely, of course, with the image of him as a spy or foreign asset that they are trying to portray:
“US media—with a few exceptions—seem content with amplifying or reprinting baseless allegations and tantalizing innuendo that can mostly be traced back to one individual, Rep. Mike Rogers, who clearly has some kind of vendetta against Snowden because he has repeatedly forced him to address the issue of oversight of the NSA—a concept in government which appears to be personally outrageous to him.”
I suppose the idea of Mr Snowden being a devious and lying spy rather than a principled whistleblower makes for more interesting news reporting. It also give the media an excuse to, once again, not talk about what Mr Snowden has revealed.
Edward Snowden himself has not yet commented on these most recent allegations, even though his lawyer, Ben Wizner, has said that he might do so soon.
What he did say in response to a similar Reuters report that surfaced last November, was: “the Reuters report that put this out there was simply wrong. I never stole any passwords, nor did I trick an army of co-workers.”
And here is why I believe Mr Snowden: because so far I have seen no reasons not to believe him. On the other hand, I have ample reason not to believe the NSA.
They have every reason to paint Mr Snowden in an unfavourable light, not only to divert attention away from the shortcomings of their own security but also to potentially undermine Mr Snowden’s public interest defence and make him out as something other than a whistleblower.
A lot of what the NSA has said has turned out not to be true.
Yet so far, as far as we know, everything that Mr Snowden has said has turned out to be true.
It is like David Bromwich has written: having watched the interviews with Mr Snowden several times, having read his statements and his answers to people’s questions, I “have [not only] been impressed by the calm and coherence of the mind [they] reveal[…].”
Being of a slightly suspicious nature at the best of times, I have been waiting for Mr Snowden to somehow incriminate himself. To say something I cannot agree with, that sounds questionable in my leftie-liberal ears.
At that, so far, I have failed. Mr Snowden’s profile indeed seems to differ “from that of the spy or defector” in that he does “not think in secret”.
There are no irregularities to his account, at least none that I can see. And even if he has views that I certainly don’t share, it is obvious to me that his reasoning behind these views is sound.
I do not believe Edward Snowden to be a liar or a cheat. I do not believe he tricked his co-workers.
I do not believe the NSA would treat him differently than they treated other whistleblowers before him – they have already shown they don’t. This convenient and sketchy memo says more about the NSA and their tactics than it does about Mr Snowden.
I don’t know about you but to convince me, the spooks have to do better than that.
I still believe Edward Snowden.