Magstadt - Edward Snowden: The “Tinker” who went out in the cold

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Edward Snowden:  The “Tinker” who went out in the cold

Nearly every day the mainstream media brings more “breaking news” about Edward J. Snowden, the former NSA contractor turned whistleblower/leaker/traitor—which one, of course, depends on your point of view or what country issued your passport.
That little travel document is a big problem for Snowden these days: the Obama administration has revoked his passport and wants him extradited to the U.S. to stand trial for treason (espionage and theft, to be exact).
Snowden was a technical contractor for the U.S. government’s super-secret cryptologic intelligence maw, otherwise known as the National Security Agency (NSA). He’s also a former CIA employee.
When Snowden lifted the veil and disclosed details of a mass surveillance program called PRISM to the UK-based Guardian, he knew he’d get plenty of international media attention. It’s detention—i.e., the consequences of his actions—he’s now trying to escape. (Think Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private now on trial for allegedly giving WikiLeaks boatloads of classified information—both have gained worldwide notoriety and both are now paying a dear price).  
Revealing classified information is a breach of the oath taken by every civilian and military intelligence officer—basically, never to talk about work, full stop. It’s not just an honor code; it’s a criminal offense.
Intelligence analysts can reveal where they work (in fact, they are prohibited from lying about it), but operatives in the clandestine services often have a false identity, career and personal history. The most carefully guarded secrets involve “sources and methods.” What the U.S. knows about the capabilities and intentions of other governments (our friends and allies as well as our enemies) is often less important (with some key exceptions) than how we know it.
Of course, if an adversary finds out we know things they wish to hide, they will try to shut down the source (translation: they will spare no effort to ferret out and kill the “mole”). That’s a bad thing not only because we lose a valuable source of information but also because it has a “chilling effect” on other existing or potential sources. If we can’t protect one source, other sources get, well, cold feet.
Snowden has revealed information about U.S. “sources and methods.” His expertise involves “ELINT” or electronic intelligence. CIA and the U.S. intelligence community have terms for different tranches and types of intelligence, depending on where and how it’s obtained. Besides elint, there’s “SIGINT” (signals), “IMINT” (satellite and aerial imagery) and “RADINT” (radar), among others.
But despite all the sophisticated space-age technology now available, the most vital source is still “HUMINT” or human intelligence. That’s the stuff that inspires the spy novels of John le Carré (“The Spy Who Came In From the Cold”; “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”; “Little Drummer Girl,” to name a few) and Ian Fleming (creator of the fictional James Bond, more real to most of us now than the writer who invented him).
Snowden is charged with breaking the law and if extradited he will stand trial; if convicted he will go to prison. But what actual damage he has done to U.S. national security is both less clear and more complicated.
In one sense, Snowden really has not told us anything we could or should not have known—that is, our government has the means to intercept, collect and analyze all sorts of communications (including phone calls, text messages and emails). He has certainly not told foreign governments and other spy agencies anything they didn’t know, because they do it, too, if and when they can.
By “it” I mean they, too, engage in espionage. Governments spy on each other. It has always been thus, and always will be.
Why then all the outrage occasioned by Snowden’s revelations? It’s not simply because the PRISM program conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) casts a wider net than most of us imagined, but because it potentially affects us directly—that is, it scoops up everything going in and out of the U.S. and a lot that never leaves our shores. The government does not need a warrant to read your mail or listen to your telephone calls.
Civil liberties critics say the Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful searches and seizures is egregiously violated. The Obama White House assures us that the only targets are potential terrorists so law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear.
The main damage is to America’s political and diplomatic relations, not to our national security. Our allies abroad are angry that transoceanic communications are being swept into the PRISM net. Perhaps our NATO allies knew it was happening all along, but until Snowden spilled the beans, they could pretend they didn’t know.
It’s a cold world out there. Just ask Edward Snowden.

Tom Magstadt, a former CIA intelligence analyst, writes books and articles on politics and foreign policy and lives in the cabin of his dreams in Ouray County.