Snowden, Edward Snowden

The view is common: the leaks have vastly damaged the NSA and GCHQ. The Snowdens and Greenwalds think they are out to sabotage the state’s darker forces, and that they’re good at it. Spy chiefs of course disagree on most counts, but they share the damage assessment: the leaks are the “most catastrophic loss to British intelligence ever,” said Sir David Omand, former head of GCHQ, now here at King’s. The NSA is “infinitely weaker” as a result, said Michael Hayden, its former director.

But is that assessment correct? It’s not wrong. But it’s only half the picture.

Snowden — to provoke for good effect — may be to GCHQ what James Bond is to MI6.

“The more I know the more I think: NSA and other intelligence agencies are very capable — better than can be imaged,” observed Jarno Limnéll this morning, a cyber security boffin at Intel Security. He expressed a widespread view, and that is remarkable. The wider public, including very well informed people, see the NSA and GCHQ as vastly efficient, all-powerful, well-oiled machines filled with creative if overambitious geniuses — that is because of the leaks, not despite of them. The public criticism is almost entirely one-directional: they’re doing too much; they’re too efficient, too innovative — precisely the opposite of what people usually associate with a government agencies: passivity, inefficiency, lack of imagination.

This means at least four things.

First: Eddie is probably not such a bad recruitment poster for the intelligence community. You want to play with the biggest data out there, do some really exciting stuff, and serve your country? Exit Silicon Roundabout, enter The Doughnut.

Then the other guy is getting nervous. Last November I was in Beijing to speak about some of these questions with Chinese officials and think tankers. After the conversations had warmed up, I usually asked the question that I was perhaps most curious about. What does Snowden mean for China? The one wide-eyed answer that I heard several times: “It demonstrated a capability gap.” We could not have done most of that. The people I met in Beijing, like our publics, were perhaps most impressed by the creative potential in these agencies. GCHQ seems to be one big Q branch, Q-shaped.

Third: the credibility of Sigint got a short in the arm. If Keith Alexander, for instance, says it is “probable” that Sunni Arab states would seek enrichment if Iran gets a deal, he’s got all the credibility. He’s not just reading their mail, he’s reading their mind. With all this big data crunching, the NSA probably knows what the sheikhs are thinking before they do so themselves. Even if that’s not the case, a good number of important people think it is the case.

And finally: there’s probably a deterrent effect. If you think the world’s most advanced Sigint agencies will see everything — certainly if they really focus their allmighty stare — you probably wonder if you can get away with a high-profile cyber attack, or whatever you’re trying to hide. Yes, that’s really hard to measure. But all deterrence is hard to measure. Hello 3PLA, no more hiding behind the attribution problem.

You take that stirred or shaken?


2 thoughts on “Snowden, Edward Snowden

  1. The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

    Interesting. If the smoking doesn’t kill the guy in the photo, the fake tanning might…

    On your point about recruitment, I suppose there are those who might get their jollies out of ‘playing with Big Data at the Doughnut’ (read that last phrase silently, don’t say it out loud). So maybe Edward Snowden is James Bond.

    But maybe, just maybe, he is Will Hunting. This is what Will had to say when asked about employment at Fort Meade:

    “Why shouldn’t I work for the N.S.A.? That’s a tough one, but I’ll take a shot. Say I’m working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I’m real happy with myself, ’cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are sayin’, “Oh, send in the Marines to secure the area” ’cause they don’t give a shit. It won’t be their kid over there, gettin’ shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number got called, ’cause they were pullin’ a tour in the National Guard. It’ll be some kid from Southie takin’ shrapnel in the a**. And he comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his a** got his old job, ’cause he’ll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And, of course, the oil companies used the skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them, but it ain’t helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And they’re takin’ their sweet time bringin’ the oil back, of course, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and f***in’ play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain’t too long ’til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy’s out of work and he can’t afford to drive, so he’s got to walk to the f***in’ job interviews, which sucks ’cause the shrapnel in his a** is givin’ him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he’s starvin’, ’cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat, the only blue plate special they’re servin’ is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what did I think? I’m holdin’ out for somethin’ better. I figure f**k it, while I’m at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.” [From IMDb]

    How do you like them apples?

  2. Cincinnatus jr. says:

    IMO, notwithstanding his having fled to the Sovi….erm, I mean Russian Federation, Snowden should be seen as an American hero similar to Daniel Elsberg of Pentagon Papers fame (or infamy–the positive or negative connotation depending of course on whether you were one of those reptilian bureaucrats largely responsible for the Vietnam debacle–yes I am quite biased as a thrice-wounded veteran of that conflict).

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