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The nature of international espionage and surveillance

It makes for unsatisfying punditry, but I'll confess to having mixed feelings about Edward Snowden. I find some of the criticism of him from the Washington establishment to be crude and condescending, but I'm also unmoved by characterizations of him as a "whistleblower." Snowden has spirited defenders and critics, each of which have compelling arguments, though I don't find myself in either camp, which is probably why I haven't written much about his predicament.

But I'm open to persuasion and read his online Q&A at the Guardian today with great interest. Whether you love Snowden or hate him, it's certainly worth checking out to get a better sense of where he's coming from, and it's far too long a discussion to excerpt here in the hopes of providing a credible summary. There was, however, one exchange that caught my eye.

Glenn Greenwald asked two good questions at the outset: (1) "Why did you choose Hong Kong to go to and then tell them about US hacking on their research facilities and universities?" and (2) "How many sets of the documents you disclosed did you make, and how many different people have them? If anything happens to you, do they still exist?" Snowden's answer included a variety of details, but this jumped out at me:

"Congress hasn't declared war on the countries [that have been subjected to U.S. surveillance] -- the majority of them are our allies -- but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people. And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we're not even fighting? So we can potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own Police? No, the public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the 'consent of the governed' is meaningless."

This is helpful insofar as Snowden's motivations are relevant in the larger context, but I'm at a bit of a loss to understand this argument.

As Snowden apparently sees it -- I say "apparently" because it was not something he elaborated on, beyond the above quote -- the United States should not conduct international surveillance on foreign countries we are not currently at war with. And since the United States does engage in such espionage, he feels justified in exposing what he sees as wrongdoing.

What's disappointing is that I get the impression Snowden has given these issues a fair amount of thought, and this rationale for his leaks -- or at least some of them -- doesn't make a lot of sense.

For example, the U.S. Congress hasn't declared war on Iran, but I think most fair-minded people would agree that surveillance of and intelligence gathering in Iran is a sensible thing to do. (It might even help prevent a war.) The U.S. Congress hasn't declared war on Syria, either, but the U.S. government has an interest in understanding developments inside that country, too.

Indeed, our Congress, even at the height of the Cold War, never declared war on the Soviet Union. Was surveillance of Russia necessarily wrong and in need of sunlight?

Though he didn't specify, in context, Snowden probably intended to focus on countries friendly with the United States, which are nevertheless subject to surveillance. But even if we give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume he doesn't oppose intelligence gathering in countries like Iran and Syria, the argument is still unpersuasive -- international espionage around the globe has been a norm for generations. It's safe to say our allies conduct intelligence gathering in the U.S., just as we do the same in their countries. It's not considered scandalous by much of anyone.

Indeed, the specific question he was responding to asked about Hong Kong. Does anyone really doubt that the United States and China have spies in each other's countries, gathering intelligence?

To persuade more observers to the value of his cause, Snowden will have to do better than this.