On January 1, 2014 the New York Times asserted that Edward Snowden should be given a plea bargain, if not clemency, to reduce the possibility of him receiving more than thirty years in prison for stealing National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence secrets. Snowdenís actions caused a national and international firestorm and debate on the ability of the NSA to collect intelligence and communications on Americans and national leaders the world over.
Snowden did not, letís repeat, he did not make public that the U.S. could collect phone and other communications worldwide. Nor did he make public that the U.S. was collecting such intelligence. Snowden stole the actual intelligence and made public specific intelligence products. It is this distinction that Snowden supporters choose not to discuss. Snowden was not a whistleblower who informed the world that injustice was being done. Rather, he provided the world with specific intelligence results Ė what the NSA discovered and who they targeted. There is a difference. Snowden not only published intelligence products, he also published methods Ė how the NSA collects the data (using domestic phone and other communications companies).
What pundits and the political left assert, without any ability to know, is that the actual secrets Snowden released did no harm U.S. intelligence. What they choose not to acknowledge is that the actual damage done is the confirmation that the U.S. had the ability and was using the ability to track people through private communications. That, in and of itself, has caused great damage.
First, the primary and cardinal commandment of intelligence is Thou Shall Not Get Caught. Remember what Mr. Phelps was always told by IMF, ďAs always should you or any member of your IMF force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.Ē Breaking the cardinal rule carries its own negative consequences. Second, other nations that work with U.S. intelligence will reevaluate that cooperation because the U.S. has proved incapable of keeping its secrets Ė secret. Put another way, other nations share intelligence with the U.S. on the condition that their cooperation will not be known to the general public. It is one thing if it is an open secret within the world intelligence community that one nation works with another. It is another thing when the general public knows.
It is all true that (1) a national security big bother state or world should be resisted and (2) the NSA must be subject to the rule of law. But intelligence, by definition, is about secrets and keeping things outside of the public eye. Both considerations are not incompatible. From Washington to Obama, all presidents have unleashed espionage agents to find out what others donít want found out. It is true that in the American republic, it is the rule, not the exception, that the people have a right to know what its government is doing. It is also true that in the American republic, it is the rule, not the exception, that the republic should keep some things secret.
Although it is true laws can be violated in the collection of espionage, Snowden was not in a position to decide on his own that the NSA intelligence system was illegal and a danger to word peace. But even if you believe one man can and should upend international intelligence gathering because he thinks itís wrong, to publish actual intelligence outputs, outcomes and secrets is beyond the point of whistle blowing.
Snowden is a thief and deserves the full application of justice when he returns to the United States. Letís not forget that when he ran after stealing the NSA files, he did not run to Italy, France or some other European nation that would have found sympathy with his political views. He ran to China and then to Russia, Americaís two greatest military and political adversaries. The files he stole were on a computer. Does anyone really think that China and Russia, both equals to American signal and communication espionage, did not take advantage to the presence of thousands of NSA files in the hands of one man on the run Ė with or without his knowledge or cooperation?
It is true that due to Snowden, the NSA has been caught conducting activities that at least one federal judge says violates the Fourth Amendment (Klayman v Obama, et al - but see ACLU v Clapper in which another federal court held the NSA program was lawful) and the Obama Administration has determined to change the NSA program of data collection and storage. But the national conversation and policy changes that have resulted from Snowdenís criminality does not change the fact of his criminality.
Dr. Arthur Garrison is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University. This piece is the work of Dr. Garrison and does not reflect the opinions or Kutztown University or its faculty, staff, students or alumni.