How many Edward Snowdens are there and why aren’t we tracking N. Korea?

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By Donald Kirk,

Sometimes you have to wonder when reading the top stories how much people are really thinking about some of the implications.

Take this running story about Edward Snowden. It’s a fun read, and it would not be a good idea to put him in jail for a lot of reasons, the most compelling of which is that thousands if not millions of people around the world would be nominating him for sainthood.

Who's really in charge? Kim Jong-Un with Aunt Kim Kyong-Hu and her husband Jang Song-Thaek.  /AP
Who’s really in charge? Kim Jong-Un with aunt Kim Kyong-Hu and her husband Jang Song-Thaek. /AP

Then there would be copycat cases by people looking for similar nominations for sainthood or, if they were from a country that took an extremely harsh view of such goings-on, martyrdom.

But that’s not the point, either. The real point is, just think how easy it would be for a real spy to make off with that stuff. What if, in fact, Snowden had been spying for China or Russia — or, why not, North Korea? No, he undoubtedly was not, but what if? What if other people, not looking for publicity or sainthood or martyrdom, but just for fat fees, or for who-knows-what ideological or religious beliefs, had similar access and were purveying it to bad guys anywhere and everywhere?

At least Snowden has demonstrated that just about any old $120,000 a year contractor (I kind of wonder why he was paid that much, incidentally) could get his hands on this stuff and begin selling it bit by bit, or byte by byte, page by page, all over the world. In fact, I’d be willing to bet some people with similar or greater access have been doing just that.

Rather than go around calling him a “traitor” and accusing him of “high treason,” as some people have been doing, shouldn’t the NSA and CIA be looking into who else was or is running off with their secrets? And shouldn’t they be seriously thinking of ways to close the cracks in their armor?

Oh, that’s right. I almost forgot. The issue in the view of many people is “transparency.” We’re all supposed to know what they’re doing. They’re not supposed to be using their high-tech wizardry to look into everyone’s phone and email records in pursuit of terrorists. What if the wrong people were in charge of the NSA and CIA and they were really searching for political enemies with a view to discovering their sins and blackmailing them – or possibly wiping them out, making them, well, disappear?

No, that scenario is not out of the question. Could happen someday. In a system built on checks and balances, you have to ask: where are the checks on super-secret spooky people who might hideously abuse their power? That’s a question that people will never stop asking.

Meanwhile, you can bet that the NSA, CIA and other agencies are not going to give up what they’ve been doing. They’re just going to figure out how to do it better. They’re going to patch up the holes, cover up the cracks, look ever more carefully into all those who might be doing anything for them, on their own payroll or the payrolls or contractors, and go right on checking out all those millions of emails and phone calls.

Which begs another question: if they’re so good at all that stuff, why don’t they have a better handle on what’s really going on in North Korea? That’s the big dark hole in United States intelligence. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, it seems, simply don’t have the horsepower to figure out how to bug the top decision-makers in the North, to track their conversations, to know who’s doing what to whom.

Somehow I don’t think Edward Snowden has come up with details of phone-snooping on North Korea. Nor do I place much credence in a Fox news reporter’s claim that sources in North Korea told the CIA in June 2009 about the North’s plans to test another nuclear device.

That’s a guess that anyone could make. The North had conducted a test in May 2009 – and didn’t do another one until four months ago.

Most of what we know about North Korea is pure speculation. Some people think “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-Un really reigns supreme. Some say his aunt, Kim Kyong-Hui, and her husband, Jang Song-Thaek are in charge. The reason I like that theory is that, if Kim Kyong-Hui were proven to be the real power behind the throne, we could say both North and South are ruled by the daughters of dictatorial leaders.

Why can’t Snowden regale us with a few details on the North’s royal family? Aren’t there any juicy tidbits about the Kim dynasty in any of those millions of emails and phone calls that the NSA has been monitoring? Surely that would make Snowden’s gambit worth all the fuss we’ve been reading about.

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