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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.