Bush and Obama Spurred Edward Snowden to Spill U.S. Secrets

The whistleblower started out as an idealistic booster of the national-security state. Illegal and immoral behavior he witnessed on the inside turned him into an outsider. 
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Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Before Edward Snowden joined Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning in the annals of American whistleblowers, he was a young man who witnessed the attacks of September 11, 2001, and enthusiastically volunteered to join the national-security state. Back then, he believed in the wisdom of the War in Iraq, saw the National Security Agency as a force for good, and hoped to serve within the system. Since his first interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, we've known that he gradually lost faith in the federal government, believed it to be engaged in illegal, immoral acts, and decided to gather and leak some of its secrets.

One of the most comprehensive narratives of what specifically prompted his transition from insider to conscientious objector appears in the recently published interview he granted to James Bamford, author of several books on the NSA. Whether one believes Snowden's leaks to be salutary or deeply regrettable, it's useful to understand and grapple with what prompted him to act as he did, especially as the Obama administration works to make future leaks less likely. One method for preventing leaks that hasn't been discussed: Run a federal government that carries out fewer morally and legally objectionable actions in secret.

According to the interview, Snowden was disillusioned and influenced by what he saw during his time at the CIA and the NSA, as many Americans would've been:

  • "Snowden would see some of the moral compromises CIA agents made in the field. Because spies were promoted based on the number of human sources they recruited, they tripped over each other trying to sign up anyone they could, regardless of their value. Operatives would get targets drunk enough to land in jail and then bail them out—putting the target in their debt. 'They do really risky things to recruit them that have really negative, profound impacts on the person and would have profound impacts on our national reputation if we got caught,' he says. 'But we do it simply because we can.'"
  • "Because of his job maintaining computer systems and network operations, he had more access than ever to information about the conduct of the war .... 'This was the Bush period, when the war on terror had gotten really dark,' he says. 'We were torturing people; we had warrantless wiretapping.'"
  • "He began to consider becoming a whistle-blower, but with Obama about to be elected, he held off .... Snowden grew disappointed as, in his view, Obama didn’t follow through on his lofty rhetoric. 'Not only did they not fulfill those promises, but they entirely repudiated them .... They went in the other direction. What does that mean for a democracy, when the people that you elect on the basis of promises can basically suborn the will of the electorate?'"
  • "Now he was learning about targeted killings and mass surveillance, all piped into monitors at the NSA facilities around the world. Snowden would watch as military and CIA drones silently turned people into body parts."
  • "He would also begin to appreciate the enormous scope of the NSA’s surveillance capabilities, an ability to map the movement of everyone in a city by monitoring their MAC address, a unique identifier emitted by every cell phone, computer, and other electronic device."
  • "Among the discoveries that most shocked him was learning that the agency was regularly passing raw private communications—content as well as metadata—to Israeli intelligence .... the NSA did virtually nothing to protect even the communications of people in the US. This included the emails and phone calls of millions of Arab and Palestinian Americans whose relatives in Israel-occupied Palestine could become targets based on the communications."
  • "The NSA was spying on the pornography-viewing habits of political radicals. The memo suggested that the agency could use these 'personal vulnerabilities' to destroy the reputations of government critics who were not in fact accused of plotting terrorism."

Elsewhere, Snowden has noted his disillusionment at the treatment of previous NSA whistleblowers, as well as his amazement that James Clapper and Keith Alexander were allowed to lie or mislead in congressional testimony without consequences.

Snowden's account raises a question for Americans who want classified information kept secret. Would they rather have a national-security state run by employees who are inclined to speak out publicly when they witness years of immoral or illegal behavior? Or would they prefer them to keep quiet to avoid revealing sensitive information to adversaries? I submit that a system that conducts mass surveillance on Americans, tortures abroad, destroys the lives of innocents in intramural competitions to accrue CIA assets, ponders using pornography to discredit non-terrorists, and passes the private information of Americans to foreign governments is particularly dangerous if staffed entirely by people who are not sufficiently troubled by all that to let the public know what is going on.

George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and the most prominent members of their teams feel differently, of course, which helps explain why Snowden became a whistleblower in the first place. The national-security state is its own worst enemy, doing more to undermine its own legitimacy than its critics ever could.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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