My tolerance for Edward Snowden has run out.
The former contractor with the National Security Agency who divulged classified secrets about domestic surveillance programs has undertaken what can only be depicted as the global hypocrisy tour. A man outraged by American surveillance and who advocates free expression toodles happily to Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China? Then off to Moscow? Then tries for Ecuador (and, in some accounts, Cuba)?
And along the way, Eddie decided to toss out classified information about foreign-intelligence surveillance by the United States in other countries. For the Chinese, he was quite a spigot of secrets. He revealed documents showing that the N.S.A. had obtained text messages from the Chinese by hacking into some of the country’s telecommunications networks, engaged in computer espionage activities at Tsinghua University, and hacked into systems of Pacnet, an Asian provider of global telecommunications service.
Now, before I get into the specifics of Snowden’s China leaks, I want to stop for a minute. I know that, from the time he disclosed classified documents about the mass collection of Americans’ telecommunications data, there have been plenty of debates about whether Snowden is a whistle-blower or a traitor. And I can understand that disagreement when it comes to the data-mining program that slurps up e-mail and phone data of American citizens. But what, exactly, is Snowden attempting to prove with his China revelations? That countries engage in espionage? That the United States listens in on communications of countries with which it maintains often tense and occasionally volatile relations?
The existence of electronic espionage seems to be his beef. In an interview with the South China Morning Post—in which he admitted that he took a job as a systems administrator with an N.S.A. consultant, Booz Allen Hamilton, for the purpose of stealing classified documents—Snowden laid out his bizarre and egomaniacal philosophy: he would decide what information to pass on in countries around the world.
“If I have time to go through this information, I would like to make it available to journalists in each country to make their own assessment, independent of my bias, as to whether or not the knowledge of US network operations against their people should be published.”
I’ll have to assume that Snowden is on this fit of self-righteous arrogance because he thinks there is something wrong with what he’s seen of United States surveillance in other countries. But to decide that standard espionage activities are improper is a foolish, ahistorical belief.
N.S.A. surveillance has been beneficial repeatedly in American foreign policy. Although most instances remain secret, we already know that the N.S.A. listened to Soviet pilots during the 1983 shooting down of a South Korean airliner; used intercepted diplomatic messages to track a 1986 Berlin disco bombing to Libya; and used the cell phones’ SIM cards to track terrorist suspects after the 9/11 attacks.
But let’s take a more important example. In 1937—at a time when the United States was declaring neutrality in the emerging global tensions that fueled World War II—the Japanese government created a cipher for its military messages using a device called the “97-shiki O-bun In-ji-ki.” The Americans code-named it “Purple.”
The United States military was able to intercept Japanese communications (the very reason that Tokyo needed a code) but couldn’t decrypt the information sent through the Purple machine. William Friedman, the first American cryptography expert who tried to break the code, made some progress before suffering a nervous breakdown. Using that initial information, others managed to break more of the code. Once cracked, the United States could track Japanese naval-troop movements and even intercepted communications containing plans for the Pearl Harbor attack—information that was not properly used.
Would Snowden have been outraged that the United States was intercepting Japanese data at a time when the countries were not at war? It took years to crack the Purple code—would Snowden think the United States should have waited until after Pearl Harbor to tap into Japanese communication lines, and only then begin the arduous effort to break the code? And if not, then what is his point in turning over these kinds of secrets to the Chinese? All I have to say is, thank God Snowden was not around in 1937, four years before the United States joined the war—Lord knows how many Americans would have died if he had acted with whatever arrogance, or self-righteousness, or narcissism, or pure treasonous beliefs that drove him to his espionage on behalf of the Chinese.
Now for a closer look at the specific details Snowden turned over. In trying to understand this, I reached out to an individual I know who spent much of a lifetime in the intelligence world, including some related to parts of Asia. While he specifically stated that nothing he discussed would be based on classified information, he was able to offer a number of educated explanations why the United States would be involved in the activities in China that Snowden revealed.