Surveying the damage one man did to U.S. intelligence

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By Norman Bailey

In the past few weeks media attention has been fixed on royal babies, and the saga of Edward Snowden, a former employee of the National Security Agency (NSA), the U.S. organization that engages in the interception of communications of potential sources of important intelligence.

Purportedly Snowden released information about the NSA’s surveillance programs because he was outraged over the degree of domestic surveillance and that intercepts were used to gather and analyze official communications of friendly governments.
Snowden fled first to Hong Kong believing, one must suppose, that the Chinese government would welcome him with open arms. When that didn’t happen, he flew to Moscow, where he remains for the time being in a kind of limbo, while deciding whether to stay in Russia, which is notably unenthusiastic about that possibility, or continue on to one of the Latin American countries that has offered him “asylum”: Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador or Nicaragua.

In the meantime, a firestorm of indignation and outrage has grown up around his leaks and their supposed implications. Various European and Latin American countries have protested against NSA espionage activities in their countries. This is the rankest sort of hypocrisy.

All countries in the world that have any capacity to do so engage in intelligence gathering in any or all countries the policies and activities of which could have a significant impact on their the foreign policy goals.

It has always been thus and always will be, and any government that does not do so is derelict in its duties. During the Cold War, the United States engaged in intelligence gathering not just in the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Romania, etc. but also in Britain, France, Japan, India, and so on.

As to domestic surveillance, this is also a permanent and routine practice of the U.S. and of every other country. Most have specialized agencies or departments of agencies which specialize in this, such as the FBI in the U.S. the Securite in France and the Shin Bet in Israel.

The NSA supplies the data it gathers to the FBI so that the latter can pursue its responsibilities in the fields of counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism and the ongoing battle with the international criminal syndicates and their activities in the country.

It is said that hypocrisy is the “mother’s milk” of domestic and international politics, and that is certainly in evidence in the Snowden case.

Secondly, there is a widespread misconception as to what sort of information intelligence agencies gather. Everyone knows, from novels and movies if nowhere else, that spies, human or technological, try to determine what policies and strategies are being planned and implemented in other countries, as well as who is gaining influence and power and who is losing them, and so on.

But equally important, and often more important, is information on the methods and means being used by other countries in their own intelligence activities; in the case of the NSA, communications activities.

This is where the traitor Snowden has done immense damage. Every criminal syndicate and terrorist organization in the world is now busily engaged in changing its means of communication, now that they know the methods used by the NSA to intercept them.

So the NSA, the ECGD in Britain, and other similar agencies in other countries, will soon have to start from scratch, with immense investments in personnel and resources simply rendered obsolete by the actions of one man. When Osama bin Laden discovered that his cellphone conversations were being intercepted he simply switched to using messengers, who carried their messages in their heads, rather than on pieces of paper or computers.

The real question is not whether the activities of the NSA and similar agencies are or are not legitimate. The real question is why was Snowden, a relatively low-level employee, given access to such sensitive information?

The answer to that question would indeed be of great interest.

Norman A. Bailey, Ph.D., is Adjunct Professor of Economic Statecraft at The Institute of World Politics, Washington, D.C., and a researcher at the Center for National Security Studies, University of Haifa. This column was published by Globes, an online business publication in Israel.