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The NSA Won’t Shut Up About Snowden, But What About the Spy Who Stole More?

The government’s focus on whistleblowers instead of real spies warps the security policy debate by treating public scrutiny of intelligence activities as a threat to our democracy, rather than its necessary foundation.

March 11, 2014

Cross­pos­ted from The Guard­ian

Why does the US intel­li­gence estab­lish­ment vilify Edward Snowden but not Jeffrey Delisle? The govern­ment’s focus on whis­tleblowers and press leak­ers instead of real spies – as evid­enced by former National Secur­ity Agency Director Keith Alex­an­der’s renewed push for legis­la­tion to shut down “media leaks”, which Snowden called out Monday at SXSW – warps the secur­ity policy debate by treat­ing public scru­tiny of intel­li­gence activ­it­ies as a threat to our demo­cracy, rather than its neces­sary found­a­tion.

Pres­id­ent Obama has grudgingly acknow­ledged that Snowden’s disclos­ures of NSA surveil­lance programs sparked an over­due public debate about the appro­pri­ate limits to govern­ment spying. And a federal judge already valid­ated Snowden’s “urgent concerns” about one of the programs, find­ing it likely uncon­sti­tu­tional.

Yet top intel­li­gence offi­cials and their purpor­ted over­seers in Congress nonethe­less spew invect­ives at Snowden and call report­ers at this public­a­tion and else­where “accom­plices”. Attor­ney General Eric Holder called Snowden “a defend­ant” and vowed to hold him account­able, reject­ing the possib­il­ity of amnesty floated by offi­cials assess­ing the alleged damage. Director of National Intel­li­gence James Clap­per asser­ted Snowden’s actions aided terror­ists, though of course top terror­ists already knew the NSA spied on elec­tronic commu­nic­a­tions. House Intel­li­gence Commit­tee Chair Mike Rogers claimed Snowden was a Russian spy from the very begin­ning, and House Home­land Secur­ity Chair Mike McCaul rein­forced the smear, stat­ing his belief that Snowden was “cultiv­ated by a foreign power”. Neither offered any evid­ence. Rogers’ Senate coun­ter­part, Diane Fein­stein, initially appeared to support his claims, but a week later admit­ted she had “never seen anything to that effect”.

Are you sick of this famil­iar line of public attack yet? Because it’s the same kind of deri­sion that targeted whis­tleblowers like Thomas Drake and Chelsea Manning. So how come most people have never heard of Jeff Delisle? He is, after all, an admit­ted Russian spy who comprom­ised US signals intel­li­gence for almost five years before his arrest in 2012 and whose dismissal from the Cana­dian milit­ary was revealed in court last week.

Don’t blame Canada; Amer­ican offi­cials have been strangely silent on the matter. As part of his duties as an analyst assigned to an “intel­li­gence fusion centre”, Delisle had access to a top-secret US Defense Intel­li­gence Agency data­base – part of the intel­li­gence-shar­ing arrange­ment among the so-called “Five Eyes”, the US, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zeal­and. He volun­teered his services to Russian intel­li­gence as an embassy walk-in, then used thumb drives to steal clas­si­fied mater­ial that he dissem­in­ated to his spymas­ters through a shared email account. He was prosec­uted in Canada, and sentenced to 20 years in prison – 15 fewer than Manning received.

Delisle isn’t the only spy you never heard of. Defense Intel­li­gence Agency analyst Ana Montes spied for Cuba for 17 years before her 2001 arrest. Former US Marine Leandro Aragon­cillo spied on behalf of the Phil­ip­pines for five years while serving as an aide to Vice Pres­id­ent Cheney and then an FBI analyst, before his 2005 arrest.

Real spies don’t blow whistles or publish the mater­i­als they steal. This makes their actions more damaging, since its more diffi­cult for victim intel­li­gence agen­cies to discover the breach, assess the result­ing damage, and correct it. Were Snowden really a spy, his Russian hand­lers would have been as angry about the docu­ments’ public­a­tion as Clap­per is, as it dimin­ished their intel­li­gence value.

If the US govern­ment’s crusade against Snowden reflec­ted a genu­ine concern about leaks that do seri­ous harm to the our nation’s secur­ity – rather than a public rela­tions response to disclos­ures about contro­ver­sial surveil­lance activ­it­ies – one would expect to hear the names Delisle, Montes and Aragon­cillo brought into the discus­sion as well. And often.

When spies reveal inform­a­tion to foreign powers, however, there are no angry tirades in Congress no vote-grabbing tactics that might draw public atten­tion to this counter-intel­li­gence fail­ure. The silence helps them avoid uncom­fort­able ques­tions about whether such broad inform­a­tion-shar­ing was really in our national secur­ity interests, or whether our intel­li­gence agen­cies were negli­gent.

Almost 5 million intel­li­gence community employ­ees and contract­ors hold secur­ity clear­ances, and that does­n’t include the intel­li­gence services of our allies who have access to our data. It is inev­it­able that some of them will choose to abuse this trust, for profit or ideo­logy, and it is essen­tial that the intel­li­gence agen­cies take appro­pri­ate precau­tions against spies who intend to harm our coun­try or assist a hostile nation.

But treat­ing those who disclose inform­a­tion that is in the public interest as enemies of the state is misguided. Instead of vili­fy­ing whis­tleblowers as trait­ors, Congress should finally estab­lish safe and effect­ive chan­nels for intel­li­gence community employ­ees and contract­ors to report govern­ment waste, fraud, illeg­al­ity and abuse, includ­ing to the public when neces­sary. Such an approach would free up exec­ut­ive offi­cials to focus on real threats, and members of Congress to better discharge their over­sight respons­ib­il­it­ies so that whis­tleblowers are not obliged to leak to the press. The incom­ing NSA Director, Vice Admiral Michael Rogers, has yet to weigh in publicly on Snowden. At his confirm­a­tion hear­ing before the Senate Armed Services Commit­tee today, he’ll have an oppor­tun­ity to change the conver­sa­tion.

It’s time to have a balanced and intel­li­gent debate about protect­ing whis­tleblowers – and stop­ping real spies – instead of pretend­ing they’re the same.

Photo by Chris Hardie.