What James Clapper Doesn't Understand About Edward Snowden

The director of national intelligence says he can't understand the leak nor guarantee there won't be another one. So why should we trust the NSA with sensitive data about Americans?

If you've been wondering how James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, experienced the Edward Snowden leaks, look no further than Eli Lake's latest. The sympathetic profile, published Sunday at The Daily Beast, is interesting throughout. Two of its passages struck me as particularly noteworthy.

1) The first passage to consider is alluded to in the headline, "Spy Chief James Clapper: We Can’t Stop Another Snowden." The article reports the following:

Clapper also acknowledges that the very human nature of the bureaucracy he controls virtually insures that more mass disclosures are inevitable. “In the end,” he says, “we will never ever be able to guarantee that there will not be an Edward Snowden or another Chelsea Manning because this is a large enterprise composed of human beings with all their idiosyncrasies.”

Consider the implications of that admission.

The NSA has collected information about the communications of millions of Americans. Nefarious actors, given access to metadata from the phone dragnet alone, could blackmail countless citizens and quietly manipulate the political process. The NSA doesn't deny that. They just insist that they're not nefarious actors, that safeguards are in place, and that we should trust them as stewards of this data.

Well, here is Clapper telling the truth: Despite regarding Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden as having done grave damage to the United States with their data thefts, he can't guarantee the same thing won't happen again. And if a future whistleblower could gain access to the most sensitive data, so could a blackmailer.

So could a foreign spy.

Data retention of this sort, whether carried out by the NSA or telecoms, poses a grave threat to privacy, in part because neither the NSA nor the telecoms can guarantee that the highly sensitive information they collect on us won't be stolen. "To this day," Lake writes, "the U.S. government doesn’t know the full extent of what Snowden revealed or whether more documents that have yet to be published in the press have made their way into the hands of Russian or Chinese intelligence."

But they expect us to keep trusting them with our data. Why?

2) The second noteworthy passage suggests that one of America's highest-ranking intelligence professionals lacks the imagination to understand his adversaries:

And maybe the worst part for Clapper is, he still doesn’t get why Snowden did it. Clapper sees himself as the man who’s opened up the intelligence community to public scrutiny, who keeps the Constitution on his wall, and who’s endured the endless congressional grillings—all while keeping Americans safe. How could Snowden, a fellow intelligence analyst and contractor, not see that? “Maybe if I had I’d understand him better because I have trouble understanding what he did or what he’d do,” the director said. “From my standpoint, the damage he’s done. I could almost accept it or understand it if this were simply about his concerns about so-called domestic surveillance programs. But what he did, what he took, what he has exposed, goes way, way, way beyond the so-called domestic surveillance programs.” 

Snowden has actually addressed this subject directly, and given what he said, I think it's safe to assume that Clapper is aware of this particular interview:

Edward Snowden: I would say the breaking point was seeing the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie under oath to Congress. There's no saving an intelligence community that believes it can lie to the public and the legislators who need to be able to trust it and regulate its actions. Seeing that really meant for me that there was no going back. Beyond that, it was the creeping realization that no one else was going to do this. The public had a right to know about these programs. The public had a right to know that which the government is doing in its name, and that which the government is doing against the public.  

Granted, no one but Snowden himself can know his motivations with 100 percent certainty. Still, he has offered what strikes me, and millions of other Americans, as a perfectly plausible explanation: earnest alarm at the scale of NSA spying.

It isn't as if no one else has felt this alarm. Snowden's revelations alarmed masses in multiple countries, including heads of state, legislators in both American political parties, professionals at some of the world's leading IT companies. Clapper can't even imagine what might've inspired Snowden? The answer is everywhere. Maybe he should get outside the SIGINT bubble.

As well, he should grasp that he alienates most of his audience when he refers to "so-called domestic surveillance programs," as if the bulk collection of information about the telephone calls of Americans isn't "domestic" and "surveillance."

A final interesting bit in Lake's piece is the suggestion that the NSA was vulnerable to the Snowden leaks in part because it followed the 9/11 Commission's recommendation and set itself up to share intelligence more readily. "Snowden pilfered documents from databases designed to share intelligence more broadly within the government," Lake writes. "Promoting this integration of secrets is the primary mission of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The office was created on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that faulted the intelligence agencies for jealously guarding information that could have prevented the attacks of that day." I don't know whether post-9/11 changes made the NSA more vulnerable to Edward Snowden or not. I trust we'll hear more about that point in coming days.