No hero

From today’s FT:

Having violated his secrecy contracts, Mr Snowden has broken serious laws and should face the music. What he disclosed to The Guardian and Washington Post highlights the breadth of the US National Security Agency’s eavesdropping operation. But he did not uncover any breach of US law. Nor do the contents of the leaks invalidate what the NSA is trying to do. There is much scope to tighten its accountability – not least by cutting down on the number of private contractors with access to highly classified information.

Comparisons to Daniel Ellsberg the celebrated leaker of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, are particularly inapt. Mr Ellsberg first approached elected senators in the hope they would publicise the papers to discredit US conduct in the Vietnam war. When that failed, he leaked to the media. Mr Snowden made no such attempt. More importantly, Mr Ellsberg willingly submitted to US authorities and courted prosecution so he could defend his civil disobedience on home soil. It was declared a mistrial and he went free. In contrast, Mr Snowden had fled to Hong Kong before his NSA leaks were published. Hong Kong happens to be a part of the sovereign territory of China, the world’s largest (and most cyber-active) autocracy. Mr Snowden’s current host is Russia. His next stop is likely to be Cuba.

Too much secrecy can lead to the leaking of information. As government secrecy has grown and has come to involve more people, the opportunities to leak from within expand; and with increased leaking, governments attempt to shore up secrecy. This is particularly important because as classifying secrets becomes more layered and complex, so the potential for leaks grows as well. Secrets become vulnerable to betrayal, which in turn promotes greater disrespect for the system itself. Ultimately leaking appears to reward those people whose motivations may be the most dubious – not those interested in a more sustained and consistent approach to promoting greater openness.

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About Charlie Edwards

Charlie Edwards is Director of National Security and Resilience Studies at the Royal United Services Institute. Prior to RUSI he was a Research Leader at the RAND Corporation focusing on Defence and Security where he conducted research and analysis on a broad range of subject areas including: the evaluation and implementation of counter-violent extremism programmes in Europe and Africa, UK cyber strategy, European emergency management, and the role of the internet in the process of radicalisation. He has undertaken fieldwork in Iraq, Somalia, and the wider Horn of Africa region.