Snowden’s deceptive claim that the government is conducting unlawful surveillance has ensured his canonization as a whistleblower in the minds of too many Americans. Blinded by his halo, they fail to acknowledge that any perceived benefit of increased government transparency regarding civil liberties is completely overshadowed by the damage he has caused by absconding with a massive quantity of highly classified information.
Those disclosures far eclipse the domestic ‘surveillance’ revelations in terms of impact, and have done nothing to advance the interests of the United States. Rather we are in a much weaker position globally, and the public seems willfully ignorant of the ramifications thereof. Frankly, it’s embarrassing to see how the American public’s fixation on the least consequential portion of the disclosures and has made it all about themselves and their own perceived grievances, which seems to be a growing trend in this country.
The problem for the government is that they can neither confirm exactly what information was compromised nor the impact of that loss; damage assessments are highly classified. It seems as though the government hides things from the American public, when actually, it is our adversaries from whom the government must necessarily conceal that information.
When the government says that it cannot confirm that lives were endangered or any programs that were compromised, it does not mean that these damages did not occur. They’re not saying that lives were not endangered; they’re saying that they can’t confirm it. If all of our assets whose identities were in jeopardy as a result of this leak come out unscathed, it’s not because the disclosures did not put them in harm’s way.
Rather, it’s because the government mitigated the risk to them and took steps to protect them as a precautionary measure. The same concept applies when people point out that the government can’t confirm whether the NSA programs have helped prevent terror attacks. Aside from the difficulty of proving why something did not occur, the content of those programs is still classified, despite Snowden’s disclosures.
The government simply cannot disclose the amount of damage done by leaks. Acknowledging the impact only further diminishes the government’s ability to recover. It could harm our relationships with our allies, compromise ongoing programs that have not been disclosed, and give adversaries an idea of how we intend to recover from this staggering loss. Whatever the enemy knows about our methods informs their tradecraft and countermeasures.
Unauthorized disclosures make it next to impossible to gain trustworthy human assets, as many who might have been willing to work with the U.S., now fear we will not be able to protect their confidentiality. If someone, like Snowden, devastatingly exposed such huge amounts of sensitive information and was lionized by the American public, why would anyone feel secure sharing information with us? Overcoming this chilling effect will prove most challenging. Decreased confidence in the U.S.’ ability to keep a secret, coupled with a possible reduction in the government’s ability to monitor cyberspace will only make the world a more permissive environment for those who seek to harm us.
Americans surely understand that our government must collect intelligence to protect and advance our interests. The ways in which they do so are highly sensitive and technical. Honing these techniques and developing the technology takes time and is very expensive. When these efforts are disclosed to our adversaries, they have to be discarded and new methods must be developed at great expenditure. That money comes out of our taxes. The government will not simply stop protecting the American people because so many taxpayers seemingly find it in poor taste to do so.
We don’t generally notice the absence of conflict or danger, or of the measures being taken necessarily under the shroud of secrecy by the government. We don’t discern the stealthy encroachment on our resources and interests by our adversaries. The government does witness these things and takes action to mitigate threats. As we go about our seemingly conflict-free existence, the government maintains vigilance.
Unassuming members of your communities make sure that our way of life and global competitive edge are maintained, economically and militarily. This occurs irrespective of domestic politics. There is a great deal of work done on your behalf by patriotic citizens who cannot share the details of their work, and they deserve our gratitude for silently shouldering this task.
The bottom line is that citizens have no inherent right to know what goes on, and the government has no obligation to tell us.
This article first appeared in The Havok Journal 7 July, 2015.