“No Integrity Award, No Pardon for Edward Snowden”
By Frank Snepp (Posted January 2, 2014)
When I read recently that a group of CIA whistleblowers had traveled to Moscow to present Edward Snowden with their annual “integrity” award – his first public trophy for binge-leaking — I could only marvel at their audacity. The award is dedicated to the memory of the late, great CIA whistleblower Sam Adams and is supposedly reserved for insurgents of similar character. The current nominee doesn’t come close. The same reformist lobby is now invoking Sam’s name as part of an equally ill-considered campaign to win a Presidential pardon for Snowden, and The New York Times has recently seconded this appeal. If Sam were alive to pass judgment on it, he would give it a resolute thumbs down.
I know this with an insider’s certainty. Not only were Sam and I close colleagues in the CIA; we followed the same unwritten rulebook in exposing the wrongs and failings of our own spymasters, and suffered massive recriminations without turning tail. The last person either of us would embrace as a spiritual comrade is the mercurial young flight risk from the NSA.
Sam died in 1988 from a heart attack but likely from frustration over his own crusade for the truth gone bust. When I first met him years before, he was trudging the corridors of CIA headquarters, struggling to wrench some accountability from U.S. officials who’d cynically shortchanged, for political reasons, enemy troop strength in Vietnam. Sam insisted that the VC forces omitted from overly optimistic Pentagon and the CIA estimates had inflicted massive American casualties that might otherwise have been averted, and he wanted someone to answer for the deception so it would never happen again.
Later, from the CIA station in Saigon, I tried to help him in his second crusade, to convince our superiors that the Vietcong spy network was still alive and lethal, whatever our politicians wanted to believe. After the fall of Saigon I suffered a crisis of conscience of my own and returned to CIA headquarters to try to force those who’d botched the war’s final chapter to acknowledge their mistakes and rescue abandoned Vietnamese. Throughout this ordeal Sam was my better angel, counseling me to “stay within channels” and give the accused a fair chance defend themselves on their own turf, on their own terms.
Only after the accused backhanded me did I go public with a memoir about what had gone wrong. I didn’t clear it with CIA higher-ups, as they demanded, because I figured they’d already had their opportunity to address my concerns and had blown it, even as Vietnamese friends and colleagues perished in VC “re-education” camps. But I also avoided exposing any secrets in my book since I had no desire to further damage those we’d left behind.
Anticipating an official backlash anyway, Sam offered me a piece of advice Snowden could have profited from.
“Don’t run,” he insisted. “Make your case to the judge and the public, then take your lumps if it comes to that.” In his view that’s the tradeoff we all make in a democracy for the right to speak out.
For weeks after my book was published, I lived in abject fear, because like Dan Ellsberg before me – and Sam himself — I had no idea how the guardians of national security would respond to fault-finding, especially in that bygone era of rogue CIA kill plots, rampant mail openings, politically inspired eavesdrops, and runaway dirty tricks. Ultimately the government opted for something that served the CIA’s purposes in a subtler way. While choosing not to hang a security breach on me, prosecutors claimed that I’d irreparably harmed the national security by violating CIA non-disclosure agreements ruling out any unapproved revelations about the spy business, classified or not. They argued that I’d compromised the CIA’s ability to prevent truly dangerous leaks even though, by their own account, my book contained none.
Only Sam seemed unfazed by their audacity, having long ago decided that whistleblowing is a blood sport for which the only reward is martyrdom.
My own reward was a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1980 that left me impoverished and gagged for life, unable to write even limericks about the CIA without official approval. The First Amendment also took a hit, for now any U.S. intelligence employee or alumnus (Snowden included), and any enabler in the press, can be made to pay dearly for breaching non-disclosure commitments, real or implied, that come with spy work.
Despite the ruling’s devastating cost to me, both Sam and I remained convinced I’d done the right thing, since no one could diminish my revelations by suggesting I’d imperiled national security without being willing to answer for it.
Snowden has violated every one of these precepts and often for reasons that would have underwhelmed Sam, who ruined both his career and his life by taking on his superiors honorably and courageously, face to face.
In a recent interview with the New York Times Snowden acknowledged that he’d decided not to “work through the system” simply for fear of punishment. As justification, he cited an incident in 2009 when, as he told the Times, he was “working as a technician in the Geneva station of the CIA” and got in trouble with a superior for hacking into his own personnel file and tampering with it. He said he’d done so to prove that such files were vulnerable, but he couldn’t remember whether he’d ever taken up this “petty email spat,” as he called it, with the CIA’s Inspector General.
If that’s Snowden’s idea of “working through the system,” it’s pretty paltry compared to the agonizing months I spent trying to get my superiors to make amends for catastrophic decisions in a bad war, and the years Sam devoted to the same purpose.
In his interview, Snowden also pointed to the retribution suffered by the valiant NSA whistleblower, Thomas Drake, as if this might excuse his own flight from accountability. Drake was savaged by the government for two long years despite having appealed to his superiors and Congress before going outside “channels” about surveillance issues.
What Snowden didn’t acknowledge to the Times was that Drake was never formally accused of leaking secrets. He was never charged under the most serious espionage statute invoked against Snowden, one that punishes both the unauthorized disclosure and the publication of critical signals intelligence. And he was ultimately allowed to plea down the outrageously overblown charges against him — to a misdemeanor – in part because the judge was infuriated by the way Federal prosecutors had treated him. The Drake case proved that the courts can be a positive line of appeal, my own case notwithstanding.
As a final alibi for his own behavior, Snowden told the Times of an internal NSA report from 2009 detailing the earlier warrantless wiretapping excesses of the Bush administration. He said it had convinced him that top government officials had managed to break the law and escape unscathed.
What Snowden didn’t say was the wiretapping had been exposed by the Times itself in 2005 and had provoked new surveillance laws that forgave telecom operators who’d worked with Bush’s NSA. Whether or not you like that outcome, it’s no proof that the current NSA is operating off the books as Snowden seems determined to believe. If anything, his revelations and counter-leaks by the Obama administration show that the secret court created to police the NSA has been working doggedly – if much too secretly — to keep the agency on a tight legal leash.
When questioned by the Times about the wiretapping report, Snowden “would not say exactly” when he had read it, or “discuss the timing of his subsequent actions to collect NSA documents in order to leak them.”
What this proponent of transparency was covering up was something he’d already let slip to a Chinese journalist: his decision last spring to take a job with an NSA affiliate in Hawaii for the precise purpose of stealing the 1.7 million secrets he intended to leak. Once having loaded them onto his own hard drives, he flew to Hong Kong, where every hotel room is bugged by Chinese intelligence, and spent early June discussing the purloined files with two American reporters in a hotel room, and by encrypted email, with another back in the U.S.
Afterwards, he fled, hoping (as he told one of them) that he could quickly win asylum somewhere and thus demonstrate that you could follow his lead and get away with it.
Sam Adams would have dismissed such Pied Piper pretensions as a cynical ego trip.
But then, Sam had a moral consistency that Snowden evidently does not. Just days after outing himself as the source behind the initial leak stories, and rationalizing them as a blow for individual privacy against NSA abuses, Snowden told the South China Morning Post that the agency had hacked into Chinese IP terminals in Hong Kong and on the mainland. That disclosure had nothing to do with the Fourth Amendment and everything to do with handing a propaganda coup and vital intelligence to an American adversary.
Sam Adams would have been shocked, and he would have had honorable company. The dean of all NSA whistleblowers, William Binney, who, like Drake, had fought “within channels” to force the NSA to protect American identities in its disseminated reports, declared publicly that the China leaks had transformed Snowden from whistleblower to traitor.
Even Snowden’s staunchest defender in the press, Glenn Greenwald, formerly of the Guardian newspaper, acknowledged that he “probably” would not have printed those secrets himself. He speculated that Snowden had been trying to “ingratiate” himself with Chinese officials whose support he then needed in fending off US extradition demands.
Had Snowden closely read his own stolen documents, moreover, he would have discovered that the Chinese and the Russians are as aggressive as anyone on the planet in busting through firewalls and undermining cyber security worldwide. Thus, if Snowden were to succeed in crippling the NSA, which appears to be his real objective, he’d simply be weakening our last best defense against Big Brothers with foreign accents whose ideologies abhor individual privacy and freedom.
My friend Sam, one of the most astute intelligence analysts who ever worked at Langley, would have had no trouble sorting out this chastening irony.
Nor would he ever have abdicated moral responsibility for any leaks committed in his name. Snowden, by contrast, followed up his comments about the NSA-in-China operations by handing most of his treasure trove, including all it reveals about U.S. intelligence vulnerabilities and blind spots, to Greenwald and one other journalist whose actions and motives he could not account for, “independent” filmmaker Laura Poitras.
A self-professed advocacy journalist, Greenwald told the New York Times Magazine that in addition to shining light on the NSA he has been seeking to “subvert” it and that the Snowden documents give him the “instruments” he’s been looking for.
Poitras, who assisted the Washington Post with its initial leak stories and may have facilitated the leaks themselves, is a long-time NSA critic and a founding member, with Greenwald, of a foundation devoted to raising money for Wikileaks, the controversial anti-secrecy website. Wikileaks is now using its money to help Snowden evade American justice even as Greenwald and Poitras continue to celebrate him and his disclosures in stories that purport to be objective.
That’s contrary to every standard of truth-telling Sam Adams stood for.
To further complicate things, Greenwald and Poitras have recently broken away from their original employers, the Guardian and the Post, and are now retailing the secrets they got from Snowden to whoever will pay top dollar, with not a peep of protest from the leaker himself. His silence implies tacit approval of a tawdry effort to turn the “people’s right to know” into a “reporter’s right to profit.”
He’s also been mum about Greenwald’s propensity for playing bully with national security. When a friend of the journalist’s was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport with Snowden documents in his possession, Greenwald threatened to punish the British by stepping up revelations about their spy operations, based on what he’d learned from Snowden.
Similarly, to head off threats against Snowden himself, Greenwald has warned that parties unnamed (he and Poitras?) would release truly devastating secrets from the leaker’s remaining cache if anything happened to him.
Sam Adams would have condemned such tactics for the bare-knuckled blackmail they represent. And he would never have leaked, or allowed the press to publish, any national security secret simply to curry favor for himself, to punish a threat or insult, or to score cheap political points off the U.S. government.
Anyone who wants to fashion an appropriate “merit” badge for Edward Snowden might consider naming it after renegade ex-CIA agent, Philip Agee. In the mid-70s, with the help of ideologues masquerading as journalists, Agee tried to wreck the CIA by exposing the identities of its undercover operatives around the world.
Snowden claims that he is no Agee and is out to harm no one. But time and again editors for the Guardian, the Post and New York Times have chosen to keep large swaths of his secret documents out of print out in deference to national security. Though his leaks are not specifically aimed at undercover agents, they fall heavily on the sources and methods that enable the NSA to protect U.S. cyber security and our own privacy from virtual predators of every stripe. And because Snowden has surrendered control over his secrets, he has no way of knowing, let alone limiting, any harm they might do.
The Sam Adams I knew and admired would never have allowed his name to be used to validate such opportunism and irresponsibility. And unlike many of those now urging a Presidential pardon for Snowden, Sam could tell the difference between an embattled conscience and a bloated ego in search of a free pass.