Getting Real About Snowden's Leaks

Spying on our allies and collecting data are vital parts of protecting the nation.

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A sign stands outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md., Thursday, June 6, 2013. The Obama administration on Thursday defended the National Security Agency's need to collect telephone records of U.S. citizens, calling such information "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats."

With new revelations in the media everyday – most originating with Edward Snowden's insider theft of classified information – it seems well past time for some dispassionate discussion about what all this talk of intelligence gathering really means, and the likely political outcomes in Washington. As someone who worked on these issues for many years – at senior levels for both the executive and legislative branches of government – here's my take on the various political and media reactions to Snowden's treachery.

"Snowden is a hero": No, he's not – he and PFC Bradley  Manning were kids on 9/11 and don't know the reality of being targeted for death by fanatical terrorists with deeply covert national sponsorships. Snowden and Manning's expressed motivations are particularly flimsy; each also had established ways to raise their concerns internally and chose instead to become media stars. Each has also demonstrated that they didn't fully understand many of the programs they compromised, hence had little or no sense of the program's limitations or oversight.

[ See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

"I didn't know about it": This will hopefully – and soon – cease to be the reactions of members of Congress when a particular intelligence operation or activity is revealed. The following statement from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence sums up the frustration of this traditional politically exculpatory practice in Washington:

The House Intelligence Committee makes it a top priority to inform Members about the intelligence issues on which Members must vote. This process is always conducted consistent with the Committee's legal obligation to carefully protect the sensitive intelligence sources and methods that our intelligence agencies use to keep the American people safe. Prior to voting on the PATRIOT Act reauthorization and the FISA Amendments Act reauthorization, Chairman Rogers hosted classified briefings to which all Members were invited to have their questions about these authorities answered. 

It is unfortunate that some of the Members now attacking the Committee chose not to avail themselves of the opportunity back when these programs were not discussed so prominently in the news media.

However, now we are seeing this same duck and cover maneuver from the White House with claims that it didn't know about NSA collections on foreign leaders. This is simply incredible.

However, if it is at all true, it reflects a massive failure of the director of national intelligence and the national security advisor for failing to personally advise the president of the basic facts of international life. And, if these two officials were themselves unaware of it, they need to be replaced.

[ Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

"We shouldn't be collecting intelligence on our allies": The short answer to this is that our "allies" – with the exception of the Canadians, British, Australians and New Zealanders – collect on us. In fact, we are the biggest intelligence target in the world, and are  collected on – in our own country and worldwide – by the most sophisticated intelligence services there are. So, my reaction here is this: Get real.

Of late, the media is even talking about how the European's – just for example – have such long "traditions of privacy." Baloney! To the contrary, the Europeans are subject to far more of their own government's intrusions into their everyday privacy than Americans would ever tolerate. Again, get real. Our allies have their own interests and relationships and some of these are not at all consistent with ours

"We have gone too far": This is what we are hearing from various privacy critics, and from some quarters in Congress. First of all, we need to determine whether our practices have conformed to the authorities (e.g., the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and The Patriot Act) that were enacted both before and as a reaction to the 9/11 attacks. This should be relatively easy, and is the traditional work of the intelligence committees.

Secondly, we shouldn't be blaming ourselves if – in hindsight – we may have over-reacted. For members of Congress, I remind all of them that the fourth airplane (the one that crashed in Pennsylvania) likely had their names on it – just as the one that hit the Pentagon had my name on it, and the two that hit the Twin Towers had all of our names on it! This is something that one does not forget and something neither Snowden nor Manning experienced. So, if the terror threat against us is now substantially less than it has been over these past dozen years, maybe some of the authorities need to be tweaked or the oversight regimes for them beefed up. Again, this is the traditional work of the intelligence committees and we should let them do it.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

We have the most comprehensive set of laws and regulations governing our intelligence activities and operations of any country in the world. In fact, many countries we deal with have no controls, limitations or oversight of their intelligence activities and operations.

And the job of our entire intelligence community is to keep us safe by providing timely information that might protect us from another attack. However, we also have appropriately constrained our intelligence gathering to conform to our Constitution and a comprehensive statutory and regulatory regime.

Above all, we need to remember that we are all in this boat together and must resist the media driven fervor to put our heads in the sand – that would be very foolish indeed. Terrorists and terrorist state sponsors would love to see us do it – they don't care whether we're smart or stupid when they kill us, and will thank Snowden and Manning while doing it.

Daniel Gallington is the senior policy and program adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.