July 12, 2013

How much of Edward Snowden' revelations are novel?

I've been reading since 1982 the work of lawyer-journalist James Bamford on the National Security Administration. So, Snowden's revelations haven't come as a big surprise to me. How much has he revealed that is truly new, versus how much is he just a great personal story, a man who will risk everything to cut through the haze and apathy?

40 comments:

Anonymous said...

"knew" = new ???

Anonymous said...

Who knew what Sununu knew? The land of a thousand puzzles...

DJF said...

Everyone who thought about it, knew about it, but the government denied it. What Snowden did was ripe away the denial to the point where the government and its lackeys are trying to change the subject.

Did you know that Snowden was a high school drop out!!!!!!

Did you know that the NSA which was set up to spy on foreigners was spying on foreigners!!!!

Did you know that Snowden is trying to get asylum in countries that are so unfriendly to the US that they won’t deport Snowden back to the US!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Better question: who cares about Edward Snowden? The interesting story is the NSA, not the riveting personal story of the whistleblower. Does this country incapable of following along with anything without a celebrity?

countenance said...

I can think of a country that should give Snowden asylum:

The United States of America.

Anonymous said...

The apathy has won,Steve.

Son of Brock Landers said...

Snowden confirms much of what former NSA employee Binney revealed just a year ago. What he did do was show the NSA head to be a liar to Congress after Binney's revelations. He's also in his 20s, which I think is a big part of the focus. It's a big deal for a Millenial to throw away a future and rebeal vs. the current lib state compared to a retiring NSA Boomer who has secured his retirement.

Anonymous said...

Typo:

truly "knew" s/b truly "new"

Anonymous said...

It's interesting how the NSA has been taking so much heat recently, yet we rarely hear anything critical of the Department of Homeland Security, which was basically set up to monitor and control US citizens.

Veracitor said...

Thanks, Steve! I said the same thing to my friends and colleagues. The technology has changed but NSA's behavior hasn't, except to grow ever more comprehensive (and petty) as technology has eased the challenge of spying on everyne all the time. Heck, this stuff is older than Bamford even; a nearly a century ago international telegraph carriers were handing over all cablegrams of interest to the NSA's predecessor (see David Kahn).

I think Snowden has gotten all the publicity mainly because of the interesting personal story (Bamford never broke any laws or fled the country), and partly because he supplied some smoking-gun secret documents like FISA court orders right at the moment EFF and others could make use of them.

Veracitor said...

I wonder if people realize even yet that the government almost certainly tracks every single credit-card transaction?

Anonymous said...

'Knew'
I believe you meant new.

Paul

Anonymous said...

Lol.

I find this case so interesting because it reveals the extent to which white people will downplay whatever is revealed by Snowden.

Since it interrupts the feel good narrative white people have made for themselves with those unscrupulous Chinese who are threatening freedom, and America riding in to save the day with freedom and democracy.

I'm not sure to what level you are conscious of what you are saying, but the US having the capacity to spy on the entire Internet worldwide is pretty big news. This is not some theoretical insult here, as the US has indeed used this info to blackmail foreign countries. Ie Switzerland.

But hey, if trying to make this all about him personally makes you feel better while we slowly lose all of our rights then whatever floats your boat.

Melendwyr said...

Some of the things he's claiming to confirm have been widely suspected, but not known. Whether you believe the distinction is relevant determines a lot about how you evaluate his revelations.

At the least, he's providing various groups with the legal standing to sue, so there's that much value to the leak even if you already believed everything he's saying.

Anonymous said...

The fact that he was an insider may be part of it. With outside journalists and stuff, there is always plausible deniability.

Anonymous said...

If you think nothing he's come forward and said/told is new, then you haven't been paying attention.

Bamford's major scoops concerned how the NSA tapped incoming internet traffic as well as monitored the fiber cables lying on the seabed under the oceans.

But if you could use a VPN service and decent proxies(as well as other stuff) you could still give a bad signal.

What Edward Snowden's done is show that it isn't just merely a blatant copy, the silicon valley companies are themselves deeply enmeshed into the system, and thus giving access from within.

Thus, you can VPN all day, it won't matter. Unless you're willing to live your life without a single real account, won't help.

You're jaded (and uncharacteristically uninformed), Steve.

Cail Corishev said...

He's confirmed what we already knew or suspected was true. The main thing it does is provides ammo -- if a year ago you had claimed what he's saying, most people would have told you your tinfoil hat was coming loose. Now you can say, "Hey, I didn't get this from some militia group's newsletter; it came straight from the source, a guy who worked on these systems."

You'll still probably get the tinfoil accusation from some people who simply don't want to believe our government could ever really do something bad (no matter how many times it admits doing terrible things and then covering them up in the past), but it won't happen as often now thanks to Snowden.

Anonymous said...

"How much has he revealed that is truly new, versus how much is he just a great personal story, a man who will risk everything to cut through the haze and apathy?"

Is Steve describing the human-interest narrative, or is his view of Snowden really that heroic?

I think some dissident-right folks are conflating their dislike of the federal government and its policies with the question of what electronic capability a responsible modern state needs to have.

Like Derbyshire, I think some of the criticism of the NSA ought to be shifted to government policies like mass immigration and perpetual involvement in the Middle East that necessitate more intrusive surveillance.

As for Snowden, I can respect somebody breaking the law to do what they think is right, but if you do so you should be willing to submit yourself to the legal process. Maintaining the rule of law is important, especially when it comes to people violating their obligation to guard state secrets. No state can survive following the principle that any Snowden or Manning who comes along may declassify material at his personal discretion.

I would have a higher opinion of Snowden if he had stood his ground and braved the legal process. The fact that he chose to flee to countries that don't even pretend to care about civil liberties does seem at least a little revealing.

Ichabod Crane said...

"I would have a higher opinion of Snowden if he had stood his ground and braved the legal process. The fact that he chose to flee to countries that don't even pretend to care about civil liberties does seem at least a little revealing."

But our "legal process" for dealing with whitleblowers is not guaranteed to be legal (constitutional), nor a process (predictable, systematic). Here's a piece by Daniel Ellsberg on why it a whistleblower might have had faith in a sensible legal process in the day of the Pentagon Papers, but not so much any more: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-07-07/opinions/40427629_1_daniel-ellsberg-pentagon-papers-snowden-s

NOTA said...

Cail has it right: there's a huge difference between stuff you suspect is going on, and stuff that is documented to have been going on. Politically, this should matter a lot--a bunch of the stuff that was always said to reassure the public that theiir privacy was being respected has now been shown to be bullshit.

But it probably doesn't matter between the two parties, since the leadership of both are completely invested in keeping domestic surveillance going. I don't know how mcuh of that support comes from blackmail, and how much from honest belief that only when everyone's communications are laid bare can we be truly safe.

Anon 11:23:

With or without large scale immigration, the danger from Islamic terrorism is just not all that big. It has been oversold, and oversold even more to the people at the top than to the rank and file citizens, because having a big scary threat is profitable for contractors, and is justification for endless funding and empire building.

Remember how, in the months after 9/11, Congress was being evacuated every couple weeks? Remember how at the last several Democratic and (especially) Republican conventions, there was lots and lots of visible scary-looking security? My guess is that most of that is intended to convince the people at the top to be scared. (It may be that providing that overblown security is simply profitable, and that keeping the ruling class scared is just a side benefit.) The other benefit is that all that security makes it really easy to control the message--you can silence dissenters, eject anyone who gets off message, make sure protesters can't get anywhere where the press or delegates can see them, etc. And you can make not-very-important people feel really important. I have to go past an armed guard to go to work. I must be really special!

We didn't do this level of spying during the cold war, when we were facing an army as big and powerful as our own, with a nuclear arsenal sufficient to wipe us off the planet. Because it wasn't workable back then. The technology and economics work, now, and post-9/11 fear made it easier to get lots of money for NSA and DHS, so we're spying on lots of people now.

The spying isn't impossible to evade, but it's hard. I would assume at this point that any data I put on a cloud-based service is being scanned and maybe archived. There are products for encrypting that data, and you should use them. Longer-term, cloud services are probably just not consistent with decent privacy, unless they're designed to keep the cloud provider from ever seeing the unencrypted data. (This is workable for cloud storage, not so much for using Google Docs to edit your spreadsheet online or for using Google Calendar.)

Even if we have a big scandal and NSA promises never to try to get access to stuff held by MS or Google, and both companies promise never to give out access, who would believe them? And even with good intentions, how would you know they weren't compromised from inside?

Trusting anyone with your data just doesn't make sense in a world where just about everyone can be coerced into violating your privacy, which is our world, at least in the US. (I don't know what other countries laws look like, but ours allows the authorities to demand your records, and most companies go along without any fight at all.)

sunbeam said...

Obama really seems to hate leakers on a personal level.

Bush had his quirks, and Obama has his. I know lots of people here think he has a 7 am meeting with Satan for marching orders every workday, but he really seems like a control freak.

What's changed with the NSA and the other intelligence agencies is the technology. It's spooky (as in haunting, not a joke) what the revolution in communications technology has created.

Now I personally believe that the NSA head, or whoever is allowed to use the system, could literally pick a cell phone number at random, and cold see call history and listen in on calls.

None of this old fashioned stuff about creeping around in sewers tapping into lines. Nor any of that old fashioned stuff (ha ha) about getting a warrant or some kind of authorization. We have a War on Terror, or something equally vague going on.

Now you just lean back in your chair and put in a few number and mouse clicks.

We haven't seen anything yet though. I'm expecting the day to come where there is literally a camera anywhere you would likely want to be recording 24/7. And the footage is stored... forever.

Cell phones aside, the implications of face recognition technology is pretty sobering as well.

It used to be that when we had paper records and whatnot, stuff would get lost, they would toss it out after a while, or people would literally forget where it was. Or maybe it got burned in a fire, got wet, or rats ate it.

No more. Now it is accessible easily, never goes away, and I'm betting there are multiple copies.

Your permanent record is really that now.

I think the whole phenomena is totally new. Never before has any security state been able to keep such a total eye on so many people, and do it so cheaply.

I can't think of anything similar in human history. Keeping an eye on everyone used to take overhead. Now? Dirt cheap.

Guess we'll all have to get used to the over examined life.

If anyone other than a computer program somewhere, filtering for potentially troublesome individuals, really cares.

NOTA said...

Anon 11:23:

There's a funny asymmetry in your concerns. No government can survive without being able to keep some secrets--that seems at least more-or-less true. And people disclosing secrets can do serious harm, no doubt about that.

But no democratic government can survive having lots of its decisions and operations run based on secret laws and courts. Having intelligence agencies that are too powerful for anyone to oversee or cross, that's a much bigger danger than someone leaking the wrong secrets, as far as I can see. (The director of national intelligence lied to congress under oath, and was caught out thanks to Snowden's leaks. He, of course, has no need to flee the country, as he will never face any legal consequences for that. Because while leaking secrets is a big problem when done by some low-level nobody, lying to Congress about what kind of domestic spying is being done is a totally forgivable misstep.)

And I'll admit that at this point, I have little faith that a prominent whistleblower can expect humane treatment or a fair trial. Go ask Bradley Manning whether Snowden can expect decent treatment leading up to his trial. (Maybe you can get in to talk with him, but the UN representative investigating claims he had been tortured was not allowed to talk to him.) Or go ask some of the guys in Guantanamo, years after they were cleared for release. (You'll have to schedule your conversation for some time when they aren't being force-fed, since a bunch of them are hunger-striking in hopes of either being let out or dying.)

Most of these secrets both Snowden and Manning revealed were not secrets kept from our enemies, they were secrets kept from our citizens and voters. The collateral murder video wasn't classified to prevent our enemies discovering anything, it was classified because it showed what the war in Iraq looked like. Similarly, what that FISA court's oversight of surveillance looked like, that wasn't something we needed to keep secret from Al Qaida. But Americans might object if we noticed that the FISA court issued warrants for millions of people's data over months at a time.

The Obama administration is still keeping the rules and legal rulings used for domestic spying and assassinations and such secret. Whom do you think they're keeping them secret from? Al Qaida? My guess is, the real enemy they must be kept from is the ACLU.

So, yes, states need secrets. But intelligence agencies need oversight, and states also need laws and courts that function in the open, and that can be seen and challenged by voters. Those concerns seem a hell of a lot more important than the leaking of these secrets, to me.

guy smiley said...

At least he packaged it in a memorable way - I think having an interesting 'face' and ongoing story keeps it at the front of people's minds. Also, he did it all in one shot (well, more than the previous people). So, I don't know whether there's anything new but, the above and the actual visual documentation (per another commenter) push it home better than it's been yet.

Marc B said...

Snowden's confirming what a lot of us already suspected, and the mainstream news has been eerily reminiscent of the Infowars site during much of Obama's second term. I see no reason for Snowden to give up his freedom for the rest of his life merely for standing on principal by exposing a corrupt government, especially with Eric Holder in charge of the DOJ. He's already given up plenty. What he did was heroic, if not totally selfless or well planned. I'd happily stay in Russia if I was him.

Anonymous said...

As for Snowden, I can respect somebody breaking the law to do what they think is right, but if you do so you should be willing to submit yourself to the legal process. Maintaining the rule of law is important, especially when it comes to people violating their obligation to guard state secrets. No state can survive following the principle that any Snowden or Manning who comes along may declassify material at his personal discretion.

And you would do the same thing, would you? The law and process in the "rule of law" you refer to ought to act in a respectable manner, or it will only be respected out of a sense of historical inertia. Show trials like Zimmerman's detract markedly from this earned respect.

sunbeam said...

Nota said:

"But no democratic government can survive having lots of its decisions and operations run based on secret laws and courts. Having intelligence agencies that are too powerful for anyone to oversee or cross, that's a much bigger danger than someone leaking the wrong secrets, as far as I can see. (The director of national intelligence lied to congress under oath, and was caught out thanks to Snowden's leaks. He, of course, has no need to flee the country, as he will never face any legal consequences for that. Because while leaking secrets is a big problem when done by some low-level nobody, lying to Congress about what kind of domestic spying is being done is a totally forgivable misstep.)"

I disagree. I think what we see now is the fact that the powers that be no longer need to wear a velvet glove when wielding power.

It just doesn't matter anymore.

Really they don't need us at all anymore. Once upon a time you needed people to work on farms and in factories.

Now we just walk dogs or take in the dry cleaning for people that matter.

Here is a Frank Zappa quote I always thought was profound:

“The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it's profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move the tables and chairs out of the way and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater.”

Look this country was set up to be a nominal democracy from the beginning. It was from the beginning run by "vested interests," the members of which have changed a number of times over the years.

But it was set up from the get go for wealthy landowners to call the shots, while plausibly posing as a democracy.

Can anyone think of anything that has ever passed over the objection of the powers that be?

Take our current period for example: Public opinion in general is against immigration, against free trade, against all these foreign adventures, and ranges from not giving a rat's ass to having vague misgivings, to loathing gay marriage.

Yet because the people who actually make decisions are comfy with the notion, and it warms their hearts to promote freedom or something, that is what we are going to get.

(BTW I'm a rat's asser.)

Anonymous said...

USG has turned into a rogue state.

Russia, China, Japan, India, Germany etc are all operating on that basis.

Anonymous said...

NSA is "National Security Agency," not "National Security Administration."

Anonymous said...

I too have read Bamford for a long time. What was novel to me was the tech company's willing provision of backdoors. Last I read in his books, executives at those companies (particularly Google) thought that allowing such access would cause them major business problems in the future. It's building in a massive security hole to all their services, after all.

IA said...

He ought to tell us what amounts we ingest are coming from china, india, etc. as I understand it there is no info on this from the FDA nor on packaging. So, we aren't aware of what part of the world our food comes from. This is not good. There is unbelievable corruption in the ROW (rest of the world) and uneducated people there do not know how to adulterate protein content. Its top down.

Anonymous said...

I think some part of this NSA monitoring possibly goes back to the late 1970's when it first became technologically feasible. There were rumors back then about it in not so mainstream magazines.

The 40th Name said...

It's interesting how the left has this incoherent view on nationality. We are all supposed to be "Citizens of the World" and believe in multiculturalism, and that nation states are inherently wrong. But, then when it comes to military secrets, it is a super crime to release them. No wonder Snowden had the view that he did, he was given very inconsistent messages.

Anonymous said...

I don't see anybody noticing this angle:

You couldn't sue the government for illegal surveillance because without proof of a secret program, you had no standing. This may help establish standing.

Names of the specific projects were revealed on those slides, which can now be used to file FOIA requests.

Michael Ard said...

Snowden is not a great personal story. He is not a whistleblower. He was part of a plot to infiltrate the system. Don't have any sympathy for him.

Michael Ard said...

Snowden was set up to infiltrate the system. Not a great personal story.

People in this country spy on each other with their phones! Willingly. NSA has nothing on us.

NOTA said...

Anon 2:10:

That sort of consideration is why I believe "the enemy" that Manning and Snowden have been helping is not Al Qaida or China, but rather the ACLU and American voters.

This article in the Economist does a good job of capturing an important strain in post-9/11 government--the notion that there are a lot of these war onterror policies that are simply too important to allow the people to debate and, possibly, roll back. The people in the security establishment are more and more in the driver's seat--senators and generals fear to cross them. And those people are determined that we should not have a voice in what they do--that we shouldn't even be allowed to know what they're up to, in fact. Because we might not approve, and then they might have to change their actions.

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous said...

Maintaining the rule of law is important, especially when it comes to people violating their obligation to guard state secrets."

The state has an obligation NOT to keep some things secret. The state has an obligation NOT to spy on its citizens. They have violated our trust and their oaths to abide by the Constitution. Snowden was exactly right to do what he did and how he did it.

"No state can survive following the principle that any Snowden or Manning who comes along may declassify material at his personal discretion."

I don't care about the survival of "The State", only about the survival of the country. The chief threat to the country now is "The State".

"I would have a higher opinion of Snowden if he had stood his ground and braved the legal process. The fact that he chose to flee to countries that don't even pretend to care about civil liberties does seem at least a little revealing."

Then you are naive. The "legal process" - as you call it (we used to just call it "the law") - would do nothing but silence him and grind him to nothing. With the new provisions enacted in the last NDAA, Snowden can now "legally" be disappeared. That he chose to flee to China and Russia only reflects his (quite rational) realization that he would be safer there. In any NATO country he could have been arrested. In any third-world or non-aligned country, he could have been rendered in secret.

Mr. Anon said...

"NOTA said...

No government can survive without being able to keep some secrets--that seems at least more-or-less true. And people disclosing secrets can do serious harm, no doubt about that."

States keeping secrets can do serious harm, and do so.

"So, yes, states need secrets."

But not nearly as many secrets as THEY think they need to keep. And, of course, it is they who decide what shall be kept secret, and those decisions are themselves made in secret. Most of the secrets the government keeps are to protect itself (themselves), not us.

Cail Corishev said...

This article in the Economist does a good job of capturing an important strain in post-9/11 government--the notion that there are a lot of these war onterror policies that are simply too important to allow the people to debate and, possibly, roll back.

That seems clear. Remember when the Patriot Act was being debated and Democrats were screaming that it would be the end of civil liberties, that we'd all end up wire-tapped, etc.? So once they got in charge, did they make any attempt to repeal it? No, the question never even came up. Instead, they doubled-down on it, and every other policy of the Bush administration that they'd been complaining about. If you want an example from the other side of the aisle: Reagan campaigned on (among other things, of course) shutting down the brand new Dept. of Education, but by the time he took office, that was impossible.

There's no evidence whatsoever that our government officials will ever roll back any policy they've enacted, without a major push from the voters. The only way it can happen is by a large enough number of voters threatening to throw them out of office, and the only way that can happen is if we know what they're doing in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I'm gonna express my outrage about the NSA invading my privacy as soon as I'm done posting my wife's gynecological exam report on my facebook page.