10 Takeaways from the Wired Interview with Edward Snowden

August 19, 2014 – Here are 10 Takeaways from James Bamford’s interview with Edward Snowden in WIRED, followed by one question. Please feel free to answer the question and/or comment.

1) File under: Massive State Bureaucratic Inefficiency. Snowden states that he left digital breadcrumbs because he wanted the government to know exactly what documents he stole. He wanted it known he was merely a whistleblower and not a spy. The NSA missed all the clues Snowden left behind. Says Snowden: “I figured they would have a hard time… I didn’t figure they would be completely incapable.”
2) File under: When It Rains it Pours. It is possible some of the leaks did not come from Snowden, meaning there is likely another leaker.

3) File under: The Moral Hazard of Massive State Bureaucratic Inefficiency. Writes Bamford: “It was in Geneva that Snowden would see firsthand some of the moral compromises CIA agents made in the field. Because spies were promoted based on the number of human sources they recruited, they tripped over each other trying to sign up anyone they could, regardless of their value. Operatives would get targets drunk enough to land in jail and then bail them out—putting the target in their debt.” Snowden says: “They do really risky things to recruit them that have really negative, profound impacts on the person and would have profound impacts on our national reputation if we got caught… But we do it simply because we can.”

4) File Under: “Hope and Change.” Snowden held off on blowing the whistle because he believed in the promise of Obama’s “Hope and Change.” Says Snowden: “I think even Obama’s critics were impressed and optimistic about the values that he represented… He said that we’re not going to sacrifice our rights. We’re not going to change who we are just to catch some small percentage more terrorists… Not only did they not fulfill those promises, but they entirely repudiated them… They went in the other direction. What does that mean for a society, for a democracy, when the people that you elect on the basis of promises can basically suborn the will of the electorate?”
5) File under: Israel; Pornography; Martin Luther King, Jr. The NSA was sharing “raw private communications” of citizens with Israel. Writes Bamford: “…in this case, the NSA did virtually nothing to protect even the communications of people in the US. This included the emails and phone calls of millions of Arab and Palestinian Americans whose relatives in Israel-occupied Palestine could become targets based on the communications.” Says Snowden: “I think that’s amazing… It’s one of the biggest abuses we’ve seen.” Furthermore, Bamford writes that the NSA “was spying on the pornography-viewing habits of political radicals… the agency could use these ‘personal vulnerabilities’ to destroy the reputations of government critics who were not in fact accused of plotting terrorism. The document then went on to list six people as future potential targets.” Says Snowden: “It’s much like how the FBI tried to use Martin Luther King’s infidelity to talk him into killing himself… We said those kinds of things were inappropriate back in the ’60s. Why are we doing that now? Why are we getting involved in this again?”

6) File Under: The Necessity and Value of Whistleblowers. Snowden: “If the government will not represent our interests, then the public will champion its own interests. And whistle-blowing provides a traditional means to do so.”
7) File under: Oops; Inappropriate Humor; Blaming Israel. While hacking into a major internet service provider to spy on Syria, the NSA inadvertently “bricked” (shut-down) Syria’s internet connection. Even though Syria did not identify the culprits, Snowden notes his colleague’s joke: “If we get caught, we can always point the finger at Israel.”

8) File under: Blowback; Moral Compromise for Targeting Civilian Infrastructures Including Hospitals.
While working for Booz Allen, Snowden discovered Chinese civilian infrastructures were targeted for cyberattacks. Says Snowden: “It’s no secret that we hack China very aggressively… But we’ve crossed lines. We’re hacking universities and hospitals and wholly civilian infrastructure rather than actual government targets and military targets. And that’s a real concern.”

9) File under: MonsterMind (the name of the program speaks for itself). Snowden discovered a new cyberwarfare program MonsterMind, which, essentially, would detect cyberattacks and counter-attack with no human oversight. Says Snowden: “These attacks can be spoofed… You could have someone sitting in China, for example, making it appear that one of these attacks is originating in Russia. And then we end up shooting back at a Russian hospital. What happens next?” Furthermore: “The argument is that the only way we can identify these malicious traffic flows and respond to them is if we’re analyzing all traffic flows… And if we’re analyzing all traffic flows, that means we have to be intercepting all traffic flows. That means violating the Fourth Amendment, seizing private communications without a warrant, without probable cause or even a suspicion of wrongdoing. For everyone, all the time.”
10) File under: Government Lying to its Citizens; Bureaucracy Breeds Apathy. Snowden’s breaking point came when he watched Director of National Security James Clapper tell the Senate committee that the NSA does “not wittingly” collect information on American citizens. Says Snowden: “I think I was reading it in the paper the next day, talking to coworkers, saying, can you believe this shit?” Snowden’s characterization of his colleague’s apathy: “It was more of just acceptance…” the “banality of evil.” As Bamford points out, this a reference to Hannah Arendt’s study of bureaucrats in Nazi Germany. Snowden continues: “It’s like the boiling frog… You get exposed to a little bit of evil, a little bit of rule-breaking, a little bit of dishonesty, a little bit of deceptiveness, a little bit of disservice to the public interest, and you can brush it off, you can come to justify it. But if you do that, it creates a slippery slope that just increases over time, and by the time you’ve been in 15 years, 20 years, 25 years, you’ve seen it all and it doesn’t shock you. And so you see it as normal. And that’s the problem, that’s what the Clapper event was all about. He saw deceiving the American people as what he does, as his job, as something completely ordinary. And he was right that he wouldn’t be punished for it, because he was revealed as having lied under oath and he didn’t even get a slap on the wrist for it. It says a lot about the system and a lot about our leaders.”

One Question: How do you feel about your tax dollars being used to fund these 10 Takeaways?