By GRAHAM MCMILLAN -–
I was watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with my second-grade class when my mom came to pick me up on Sept. 11, 2001. The Queensboro Bridge was immobile with confused, scared New Yorkers on the way home, and smoke and sadness hung in the air farther down the East River.
The attacks of Sept. 11 sent the United States into a flurry of foreign aggression and domestic surveillance. Former U.S. President George Bush quickly created the Department of Homeland Security. The Patriot Act was signed in October 2001 and the National Security Agency began its Orwellian ascent.
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks on Nov. 13, one of the deadliest terrorist attacks since 9/11, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was vilified for exposing surveillance secrets that allow terrorists to circumvent typically monitored communication means.
The current CIA director, John Brennan, has said that terrorist groups have been practicing more “operational security” following Snowden’s leaks. New homegrown encryption methods have permitted Al Qaeda and ISIS to operate in the darkest corners of the Web, making it harder for security forces to intercept messages and thwart their schemes.
“I think the blood of a lot of these French young people is on his hands,” Former CIA director James Woolsey said of Snowden on CNN on Thursday. “It’s still a capital crime, and I would give him the death sentence.”
Blaming Snowden’s leaks for security challenges today, however, is wrong for a couple of reasons.
The many successful attacks perpetrated while NSA was collecting EVERYTHING suggest the leaks may not have compromised defense capabilities as much as current and former CIA directors may suggest.
First, an independent study from cyber-security firm Flashpoint in September 2014 found that online Jihadis were aware of U.S. interception capabilities before Snowden and have not significantly changed their encryption techniques since 2007.
To be sure, there are independent studies that suggest Al Qaeda and the like have been bolstering their encryption methods since Snowden’s leaks, but this brings us to the second issue with Brennan’s indictment of Snowden.
There were many successful terrorist attacks in the period after 9/11 and before Snowden’s leaks, including the Boston bombing on our home turf. How could these attacks be so effectively perpetrated if the NSA was as effective as it would claim, or if online Jihadis’ encryption methods needed to be substantially changed?
The collection of meta data, warrantless phone taps, and search algorithms can only go so far to prevent violence. In the years before Snowden there was a bombing on a train in Madrid in 2004 that left 191 people dead, attacks in London in 2005 that left 52 dead, and a coordinated offensive in Mumbai in 2008 that left 166 dead.
The value of Snowden exposing an increasingly authoritarian management of our right to privacy should be lauded and reconsidered as panic threatens to justify further measures of control.
Exposing Americans to the magnitude and detail of the information being collected on them is not a reasonous act, to be detested. In fact, as an American citizen with nothing to hide I nonetheless cling tightly to my privacy and my democratic ability to at least weigh in on the sacrifice of my rights in the name of national security.
Snowden, however, is painted in a very different light. Hillary Clinton, in a visit to the University of Connecticut in April of last year, questioned Snowden’s patriotism after absconding to Hong Kong and then to Russia.
“If he were concerned and wanted to be part of the American debate, he could have been,” she said,. “Odd that he would flee to China, because Hong Kong is controlled by China, and that he would then go to Russia — two countries with which we have very difficult cyber relationships, to put it mildly.”
Of course, Snowden’s actions put U.S. advantages at risk in conflict areas and even put relations with allies at jeopardy. By showing the extent and direction of NSA activity, however, he began the conversation about the necessity of surveillance on this scale. He returned the democratic process not only to the monitoring of internal affairs but also on the mechanisms we use in external relations.
Before Snowden revealed the NSA’s actions, there were still terrorist attacks. There was not, however, a democratic conversation on what amounted to the government spying on its people. To say that exposing this transgression resulted in the Paris attacks is to politicize a tragedy and incite fear to further surveillance powers. I can only hope Snowden’s example continues to encourage transparency, one whistleblower at a time.
(Written by Graham McMillan, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Nov. 26, 2015)