Listening to Edward Snowden at SXSW

Snowden said his leaks have made the US safer.

Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP
NSA leaker Edward Snowden simulcast at South by Southwest today.

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden spoke via internet link on a panel at the South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) in Austin today. If you were hoping for fresh revelations, or probing questions about his motivations and decisions, you would have been disappointed. 

His fellow panelists were Ben Wizner and Chris Sogohian of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), but Mr. Snowden, sitting in front of a screen with the US Constitution emblazoned across it, was the star of the show.

What did Mr. Snowden, currently residing in Russia to avoid arrest at home, have to say?

1. Public oversight.

Snowden said the US needs some new kind of "public oversight" of its intelligence community. "We need a watchdog that watches Congress, because if we're not informed, we can't consent to these (government) policies," he said.

Well, there is a watchdog for the US Congress, the president, and the various arms of the federal government they fund and regulate. That watchdog is called voters. You can argue that elected representatives have failed to adequately carry out their duties (or not), but trying to find a way around electoral democracy, warts and all, that leads to better protection of individual liberty is a problem that has bedeviled political philosophers for generations.

He attacked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court that provides secret warrants for surveillance inside the country as a "rubber stamp" for US intelligence and law enforcement (never mind that just today the court denied an NSA request to hold on to telephone metadata indefinitely). A criticism that the court is generally far too friendly to requests from the NSA and others would be far from unreasonable. 

But, again, American voters do in fact have it in their power to change this. Or they could continue to vote in favor of the politicians who have presided over the expansion of domestic surveillance in the years since 9/11.

2. The Boston Marathon bombing wasn't stopped because of the NSA.

This assertion was arguably Snowden's most risible. He claimed that the NSA's bulk collection of metadata distracted the agency from focusing on terrorists and as a result, the Tsarnaev brothers were able to attack the Boston Marathon last year. He also asserted that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber caught trying to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight in 2009, likewise was able to board the plane because of this distraction.

This is nonsense. It's true that Russia contacted the FBI about one of the Tsarnaev brothers in 2011 and warned that he had contacts to militant Islamist circles in the former Soviet Union. But it's also true that the FBI looked into it at the time, including visiting the family home in Cambridge, and found no evidence of any criminal activity.

If the US was in fact the Orwellian hell-scape of surveillance and trampling of civil liberties that many of Snowden's supporters seem to think it is (or maybe just a little bit more like Russia), perhaps the brothers would have been indefinitely detained, or placed under permanent surveillance. But, well, there are laws against that, so two young men who went on to attack the marathon two years later were left alone.

Many people who have worked in or studied the US intelligence community have worried for years that the US is becoming overly reliant on technical data collection rather than human intelligence (AKA "old fashioned" spying). And if that was his point, he'd have received a chorus of "preach it, brother" even from corners within CIA and NSA headquarters.

But the claim that automated metadata collection stands in the way of better human intelligence – or better analysis of information, whatever its source – is simply not supported by fact. That database is queried when an individual or group is targeted because they've appeared on spies' radar. While the picture of NSA staffers spending their days looking at citizens' dirty pictures and idly trawling through metadata to figure out where so-and-so had lunch last Friday is an amusing one, it isn't true.

3. Snowden has improved US national security.

Snowden asserted that the vast number of documents he stole – at least 50,000 – and the disclosures connected to them have made the US safer. This is a rather extreme and almost certainly false assertion. While it's one thing to argue a principle – a little less security is worth it for a little more personal liberty or privacy – the disclosure of the means and methods of the NSA (and its counterparts in the UK and Australia) has made it easier for foreign intelligence targets – governments and non-state actors alike – to evade detection. One of his leaks, for instance, explained the technical means the NSA was using to track Al Qaeda operatives in and around Mosul, Iraq.

There are also concerns about the proliferation of documents he took, and what they might contain. Snowden insists that the documents he took can't end up in the hands of foreign powers. But there's no particular reason to assume he's right. 

4. Questions I'd like to have asked.

Finally, here are a few questions I would have asked if I could of Snowden: "If your principal concern was what you took to be violations of the US Constitution, why steal and release so many documents that disclose uncontroversially legal surveillance on foreign targets by the NSA?" "Why not get in touch with the US government and provide a full accounting of everything you stole, to assist the US with damage assessment from the leaks? "How could you have possibly vetted and reviewed all the documents you stole? The numbers involved seem impossible for you to have come to grips with in the time available." And "How do you feel about having taken asylum in Russia, a country that has a much poorer record when it comes to civil liberties and the surveillance of its citizens than the US?

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