REVIEWS, 1 Jun 2020

Michael Brenner – TRANSCEND Media Service

Edward Snowden’s book is not a ‘coming-of-age’ saga. It is necessary to say that at the outset. One of the peculiarities of our times is the penchant for rendering everything in terms of so-called ‘human interest.’ The most profound events, the most penetrating analysis, the most stirring ideas – all are reduced to personality. Whether it is the personality of the author, a representation of the subject, or some background character.

So, it is no surprise that the reviews of Snowden’s revelatory and instructive account of his experience place undue stress on background, his relationship with his now wife Lindsay Mills (an admirable person), his workplace colleagues. They come up dry in terms of the man. They are totally irrelevant to the crucial issues of America’s Intelligence obsession/abuse. Admittedly, Snowden does offer us a descriptive account of his life’s progression – but it is all quite prosaic. You don’t find either ‘Snowden’ or the meaning of what his has exposed (in the book as well as in the ‘papers’) by looking at the outer contours of his life. That does not deter reviewers, of course. They are driven by three things: our culture’s pervasive voyeurism, the bottom line of whatever media company they’re writing for, and – most powerfully – an escape from the responsibility to address the grave and shameful matters that he discusses. The last is at once an intellectual challenge and a career risk.

Snowden’s awakening to the distressing and illegal activities of the NSA/CIA nexus was gradual. Omens were there early on – as was his discomfort with the Intelligence world’s ethos. He joined the CIA in 2007 just a few years after the 9/11 trauma. Let us recall that period. The country was panicked; a quiet hysteria was everywhere. So, too, a thirst for vengeance. Official Washington lived with the dread of more attacks to come. Few understood the dimensions of the threat or its mainsprings. The brooding atmosphere was like a lingering winter ground-fog. It has yet to fully disperse. The Intelligence agencies felt the imperative to act, i.e. to do something without delay. Thinking it all through was neither any office’s clear responsibility nor seen as a logical prelude to taking action.

In typical fashion the impulsive response was to mobilize resources – money and technology, the two prized assets in the United States’ Intelligence arsenal. The money was duly appropriated. How to spend it was the challenge. Disposing of $75 billion a year is not easy when you already possess an apparatus larger than that of all the world’s other Intelligence services combined. Technology came to the rescue as the quickest way to absorb all those dollars. That is to say, technology and its human consorts numbering literally in the hundreds of thousands.

Recruiters combed the universities to lay their hands on pretty much any live body that came within reach. Many bodies responded to their blandishments.  Patriotism was a big sell. So was the prospect of a well-paid, secure job. Credentials were secondary – with a couple of exceptions. Language skills were one, especially Arabic, Farsi and other neglected ‘exotic’ tongues. IT capabilities were in even greater demand. For nerds, it was like Paradise – the promised land of 77 jobs open to the bearded, the tattooed, the loners, the addicted tinkers. Diversity left room for the conventional, too.

Snowden was pretty conventional on most counts. Consumed by IT to the point of neglecting his formal studies, he had an independent cast of mind, unawed by authority, but not a born rebel. After kicking around in a number of schools and jobs interspersed with a stint in the Army, he wound up applying to a position advertised at a consulting firm called COMSO. He was 23. (Snowden never bothered to find out what the acronym stood for; apparently it’s owned by BAEA Systems). A few exchanges of electronic correspondence led to an interview in a non-descript office in a non-descript building in Greenbelt, Maryland with an everyman non-descript recruiter. A cursory conversation concluded with the man telling Snowden “the job is yours, Edward. What sort of salary are you looking for?” Snowden’s $50k request rose to $62k at the man’s prodding – he was bent on getting the amount as high as reasonably possible. Why? His outfit wasn’t going to pay it; rather, the U.S. government via the CIA would with the recruiting company getting a fixed percentage. ‘Cost-plus” is what they call it. These were (are) the terms on which roughly 80% of the ‘contractors’ who make up the NSA (and technical CIA workforce) got their jobs. Some switch to the more secure status of a straight government employee, some jump back and forth -as did Snowden.

In effect, the famed Intelligence community turned over recruiting responsibilities for staffing the great “War On Terror” to private, for-profit firms. Some were big defense contractors like Lockheed Martin – others small-time operations that acted as little more than a dating service. A strong preference was given to candidates who had advanced skills and some experience. The NSA and CIA didn’t want to be bothered training them. It did, though, take 6 months to indoctrinate and to socialize them.

As Snowden writes: “restructuring your intelligence agencies so that your most sensitive systems were being run by somebody who really didn’t work for you was what passed for innovation.” It did line the pockets of both the dating services and the top administrators who would eventually parachute into lavishly paid positions at those same outfits.

Security clearances? A formality. Given that 835,000 people have wound up with TOP SECRET clearances, it was derisory. A Mickey Mouse polygraph exam: “have you ever been a member or supporter of al-Qaeda?…….” A cheap sedative would get you through even if you did have something awkward to hide. Background checks were of the kind done by shop-worn FBI agents in regional offices who show up in a professor’s office with a checklist of banal questions. “Has Jane Doe, to the best of your knowledge, ever belonged to an organization that seeks the overthrow of the United States government? To the best of your knowledge, is Jane Doe addicted to any illegal substance or engaged in alcohol abuse?” An honest answer would be: “How the hell do I know?” Never having had the pleasure of being invited to a pre-dawn gathering of her and her confederates where they practiced suicide bombings while under the influence of the drug of the month, all I could say was ‘NO.’ The likelihood of having provided cover for a sleeper agent of a terrorist organization was virtually non-existent. The sober truth is that the number of such who have surfaced since 9/11 numbers is in the low single digits. Those few slipped through the fingers of an FBI whose considerable resources were spent entrapping and directing poor sods who, left to their own devices, never would have gotten up from their bar stools or dragged themselves away from their PCs.

Such security measures as existed at the time of Snowden’s recruitment were ill-suited to identify a dedicated young American whose intelligence, courage and integrity prompted him to take the risk of revealing that the Intelligence agencies he worked for were violating the law and the Constitution on the orders of 3 successive Presidents and their appointees. In theory, agents of hostile governments (a bestiary now composed of Russia, Iran, China, Hezbullah, Syria and the ever-menacing Mr. Maduro in Caracas) could have taken advantage of the Intelligence agencies slapdash recruiting methods and flawed IT security to penetrate into those ever-expanding data banks. None have managed what Snowden did  – at least not from the inside. They could have – if the intent existed. Just respond to a job announcement inserted by the non-descript man in the non-descript office (and take that sedative when they hook you up to the polygraph). Ironically, one of Snowden’s frustrations before government criminality wracked his conscience was the lackadaisical response of his superiors to his pointing out the seriousness of those flaws – and more serious technical flaws in their systems -and to his recommendations for remedying them.  His initiative produced nothing in the way of remediation.

The system – organization, modes, persons – Snowden describes exhibits some singular features. Most striking is the disproportionate effort and resources devoted to its maintenance. His arrival came at the moment when the CIA and NSA were charging ahead full-bore to build and deploy a vast, high tech apparatus for accumulating, storing and sifting vast amounts of Intelligence data. That involved hardware, software, real estate, dense networks of personnel scattered around the globe and – not least – an intricate, multi-layered organizational complex. Communication was the common denominator.

Communications among unwitting sources picked up by a mind-boggling array of surveillance devices; communications within the Intelligence administration – horizontally, vertically, matrixed, into storage sites, out of storage sites; communication among technicians, analysts, directors, and policy-makers. The last, of course, was least developed or standardized. Witness Mr. Tenet, Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Cheney.

Maintaining the systems consumed the lion’s share of the resources.  Actual deployment/activation was relatively cheap. Transmission/storage was(is) another ‘gas-guzzler.’ Add in the enormous waste and redundancy involved in relying on a galaxy of predatory contracting firms, and you have the answer as how to spend $80 annually while accomplishing very little of value.

Further evidence of how pervasive is the technology driven operations of the IC is the disparagement of human Intelligence. We do know that this shift began several years before 9/11. Still, when Snowden arrived in Geneva on his first overseas assignment, the CIA still was hunting and signing up real live sources. Even Snowden the nerd was mobilized to try his hand – despite an aversion to gala parties and alcohol. An expatriate Saudi supposedly involved in oil and money had been identified as someone to look into. Snowden was told to make the first contact before passing him on to a ‘pro.’ This episode quickly turns comedic – not because of Snowden’s naivete but due to the bumbling of his senior operator. The latter wound up being recalled to Maclean. The humiliated Saudi wound up back in the Kingdom nursing a life-long grudge against the Yanks who had pulled the rug out from under his posh Geneva sedan chair.

Coincidentally, this incident occurred just about the time that the CIA honchos made the fateful decision to drop those old-fashioned methods of seducing/buying/blackmailing/running agents. The substitute method was simplicity itself. Predictably, it was technology grounded, antiseptic and did away with the need for most human faculties. Step 1: identify somebody who might know something worth having. Step 2: ‘tap’ as many of his/her electronic communications as possible. Collect and store the data for future ‘algorithm-ifaction.’  Installation, the only sensitive part of the process, became progressively easier as surveillance technology developed ever greater sophistication. Clean & easy.

HUMINT was being marginalized just as old-fashioned SIGNET was being recast as “cyberintelligence.” That foreshadow the morphing of “mass surveillance’ into “bulk collection” and “metadata” – the former connotation suggesting the bi-annual municipal trash service and the latter impressive but unfrightening.

By 2011, Snowden – now promoted to a bigger job with expanded access – was fully aware that the United States was committed to a massive, global strategy of electronic surveillance. The ultimate aim was to assemble a vast horde of data about everyone who conceivably was worth tracking, and hundreds of millions about whom you knew nothing. BUT about whom you might want to know something at some future time – whether on the basis of specific reference or the algorithm printouts. That realization left him deeply disturbed.

Moreover, a harsh truth was emerging. The developing system paid scant attention to legal constraints or privacy rights of any kind. Indeed, a powerful logic was at work that was driving the process toward a total disregard for the 4th amendment. Its strictures could not be accommodated by the technology – hardware & software. The organizational momentum within the Intelligence agencies steamrolled all other considerations. Regard for the sensibilities of foreign governments didn’t figure in the equation. Precedent setting and possible retaliation similarly were given no thought (“this is America – isn’t it!”) The emotions that fueled the War On Terror were still eclipsing reason – and they were being inflamed by politicos around the country.

Finally, there was unanimity among higher-ups – in the Intelligence agencies, in Congress, in the courts, in the Justice Department and in the White House under 3 successive Presidents   – in holding to the view that the law had to bend before the exigencies of the threatening times. The Privacy vs Security trade-off as it mistakenly was called by all and sundry – including renowned law professors writing in the New York Review of Books and other esteemed places. In truth it was a conflict between the Law and Lawlessness. The difference between the two formulations is elementary – but fundamental. The concept of “security vs privacy” has no standing whatsoever in the law –  regardless of the standing it might have in the policy realm or philosophical discourse. (‘Mitigating circumstances’ may be acknowledged; however, they come into play only at the sentencing stage. A crime is a crime is a crime). The readiness to obscure that difference, therefore, had nothing to do with intellect. Rather, it demonstrated that we were not ready to go down a road to where Constitution met political expediency.  That attitude has contributed to the persecution of Snowden.

There is a straightforward way to reconcile the two. If one feels that the privacy vs security balance is weighed too heavily in the privacy direction, then there is a method for shifting it, i.e. pass new legislation &/or constitutional amendment. Of course, if you are in panic mode and believe that the exigencies are so acute as to put the Republic at risk, then you are tempted to circumvent the law – especially easy to do when the President is directing you under prodding by the Vice-President.

People like Snowden were not privy to the details. But the implications of the technical tasks they were doing pointed to the conclusion that such a compact was in place. Lawlessness was destined to win.

In particular regard to elite political consensus, let us recall the bipartisan cabal formed by President Bush in 2002 to launch a radical surveillance program that they acknowledged was illegal and nullified the 4thamendment. There was the Deistic push to all that followed. That story was recounted by James Risen in his 2006 book STATE OF WAR – a story that his New York Times editors had in October 2004 but withheld under direct pressure from the Bush White House. The cabal’s members included all the Congressional leaders from both parties (Pelosi, Daschle, Feinstein on the Democratic side), the Attorney General John Ashcroft, Chief Justice Rehnquist, Robert Mueller – Director of the FBI, as well as the heads of the principal Intelligence agencies and their chief subordinates: General Michael Hayden at the NSA, George Tenet at CIA, and Admirals Thomas Wilson and  Lowell Jacoby at DIA. They were sworn to secrecy – an oath they’ve observed to this day. The big IT companies provided helpful services while denying that awkward fact. After all, they were doing something similar for their own deceitful commercial purposes.

Thereby, the equivalent of a “Line of Blood’ was drawn that placed the leaders of America on the side of clandestine criminality. That truth foreclosed any chance of the country’s coming to terms with what constitutes a revision of the Constitution without due process. Overcoming it was certainly not something that an Obama had either the conviction or courage to try doing. Snowden did. The vehemence of his denunciation and persecution by Obama and other self-styled liberal humanists can be explained by the juxtaposition. *

They, and America’s political class generally, cannot understand a man like Snowden. Just what makes him tick is beyond their comprehension. That dread of the unknowable stokes their passionate enmity toward him. Moreover, he might inspire others of similar character. The prospect of an upwelling of such persons exposing the deceit, lawlessness –  and incompetence – that had become endemic in the most sensitive corners of the American government was nightmarish. Even worse, it undercut their cultivated self-image as public servants of rectitude. Therefore, the instinct of Obama, Holder, Hillary, the NYT editors et al was to crucify Snowden.

Snowden rose rapidly into more and more responsible positions – propelled by his talents, his innovative mind and technical curiosity. With promotion came even greater access to the sweep of the IC’s surveillance activities. From Tokyo to Maryland to Hawaii, he encountered PRISM in all its troubling dimensions.

“PRISM is a code name for a program under which the United States National Security Agency (NSA) collects internet communications from various U.S. internet companies. The program is also known by the SIGAD US-984XN. PRISM collects stored internet communications based on demands made to internet companies such as Google LLC under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 to turn over any data that match court-approved search terms. The NSA can use these PRISM requests to target communications that were encrypted when they traveled across the internet backbone, to focus on stored data that telecommunication filtering systems discarded earlier, and to get data that is easier to handle, among other things.”

It was his involvement with PRISM that convinced Snowden of the imperative to expose it. For he was now an active contributor to a criminal operation – an aggressive multi-dimensional program that was routinely violating Americans’ basis constitutional rights while promising even deeper encroachments. Nobody was inclined to do anything about it.

Under the pressure of being Dell’s chief technologist for the CIA account and recoiling from the programs he was directing, Snowden began to suffer nervous seizures. Finally diagnosed as a form of epilepsy.

Back in Hawaii, his plans began to crystallize. They were encouraged by a talk given there by the CIA’s chief technology office ‘Gus’ Hunt. He informed the audience that “At the CIA, we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang onto it forever.” There were journalists there from the ‘high tech’ press and journals. Hunt mentioned to them, in a private discussion, that the agency could surveil every one of their communications – much of it through their smart phones, activated or not. None of them reported on what was said. Mysteriously, a video of the talk appeared on You Tube – site visited by a total of 302 people in 6 years. Some of those journalists might very well be commenting on Snowden’s book in reviews heavy on the Lindsay element.

The date was March 20, 2013. Exactly 7 days earlier, General James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. In response to a direct question from Senator Wyden as to whether the NSA conducted mass surveillance of Americans, Clapper replied: ‘NO.” His lie represented criminal perjury, a perjury ignored by all parties.


That’s just the way the game is played in Washington on security cum spying matters. There are two kinds of people: those who have bullets in their guns; those who hold meetings and issue communiques.

First, though, Snowden wanted to dig deeper in that holy-of-holies: the CIA’s X program He sought and obtained a position as a Dell contractor that brought him into XKEYSTORE.  “X” ’s capacities exceeded by far those of PRISM. They were truly Orwellian. In its essence, the operation used all manner of an individual’s electronic communications devices to track and record his every movement: his emails, other social media messaging, his Internet searches, telephone calls, etc. The extent of the population globally thus targeted was stunning.

Snowden recounts how his random probes turned up the electronic surveillance of an Indonesian academic. The man had gotten on the American suspect list merely by responding to the notice of a university research position somewhere in Iran. He had no technical qualifications nor was he a political or religious activist. Yet, there he was featured on the monitor in the act of working at his PC (the instrument that was video-taping him). He had a toddler on his lap. The baby looked at the computer screen and straight into Snowden’s eyes. If Snowden had any lingering doubts about his planned actions, that experience erased then.

Many of you reading this doubtless have similar files of revealing material stashed away somewhere in the NSA/CIA archives. That is all the more likely if you have had some association or contact – however benign – with persons/institutions in Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan or with any political personality in Venezuela or Bolivia who challenges the oligarchs. In the improbable event that the snoops felt any constraint about this fine-grain surveillance of an American citizen, they always could rely on one of their partners in the 5-Eyes Network, the Anglo Intelligence consortium, to do the dirty work for them – especially GCHQ in the U.K. that enjoys vast authority to do just about anything. Moreover, were a British media outlet to uncover a sensitive and legally dubious action, HMG has the power to issue DSMA-Notice (Defence and Security Media Advisory Notice) — an official demand not to publish or broadcast the item for reasons of national security. Concretely, that means Boris Johnson can block The Guardian or anyone else from publishing the counterpart to PRISM or ‘Z’ material on pain of criminal prosecution.

For Snowden, that knowledge became an intolerable burden. He felt a compelling obligation to act. He did so with remarkable bravery – on his own – driven by the imperative to get the story out regardless of personal consequence. He meticulously prepared his personal affairs in expectation that soon he would be either dead or destined to spend the rest of his life in prison. He confided in no one – fearful for their safety and his arrest.  Snowden was acutely aware that a problem shared was not a problem halved – but a problem doubled.

The rest is history.

Edward Snowden is a courageous and honorable man. That cannot be said of the present Director of the CIA: the black-site torturer, Gina Haspel, who showed mislabeled photos of maimed children to Trump as part of a plot to push him into a major military intervention in Syria; of the long-time Director of National Intelligence: the felonious perjurer William Clapper; of Haspel’s predecessor: the congenital liar John Brennan who directed the break-in of the Senate Intelligence Committee computer files in order to protect Haspel and her ilk. Nor can it be said of the President who commanded him to do so – the same man who expanded and concealed electronic surveillance, who prosecuted all those who threatened to reveal these illegal programs, and who used them to identify and arbitrarily to assassinate Americans without trial: Obama, the nation’s self-anointed Preacher-In-Chief, who renders unto Caesar unfailingly.

Snowden is a far better person than any of them.

There was a time in America when a Snowden would be celebrated as the model of an idealistic young man whose devotion to principle placed justice before self-interest. Nowadays, the baying pack of scoundrels,  careerists and bumblers who run the country howl for his traitorous hide.  Obviously, there are exceptions. Yet, one is hard-pressed to identify voices raised on his behalf.

Numbered among the self-styled patriots who call Snowden traitor are Diane Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi. Yet they were among the conspirators in 2002 who acted to violate the Constitution they had sworn to uphold through a criminal project with malice aforethought.  Is it they who deserve impeachment – if not criminal prosecution? In the Poet’s words : ”Guilty is a word unspoken except where Innocence dares to plead.” Snowden may be guilty in some technical legal term; he, though, is the loyal citizen who defended the Constitution – not Feinstein, Pelosi and their co-conspirators.

Here are two segments of a quite extraordinary interview with Snowden: October 23, 2019




Participants in the debates about the CIA and NSA share the usually unstated premise that what those agencies do counts. Intelligence is taken to be of capital importance. Well, let’s take a searching look at the record of their performance.

There is an abundance of historical evidence about the success rate in the acquisition and deployment of Intelligence.  In truth, NSA/CIA performance since 2001 has been less than stellar. It is the striking failures that stand out.

  1. The American IC missed the many faceted Russian intervention into Syria in 2015. However we judge the consequences of that intervention, it was an embarrassing failure. By the testimony of an extremely high former Intelligence official, the NSA detected some of the Russian force movements, but they were interpreted as just a standard rotation or reinforcement.

We had no human assets sipping mint tea in a café overlooking the Bosporus, or an informant at a Russian shipyard or airfield who might have tipped us off. As to Syria, American officials have admitted that we have virtually no human assets there – the Kurds and the White Helmets aside. The IC boosts about the man they had at the very elbow of Vladimir Putin at the time. He’s the super-spy who now lives in a grand mansion in the Virginia countryside in the open. Exactly what he was so handsomely rewarded for is obscure. (Was he the one who fingered master spy Butina?)

  1. We also missed the fact that the Baghdad government of al-Maliki in the fall 2008 had decided to kick out all American military forces – despite the fact that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker were meeting with his Ministers almost daily for discussions of a chimeral Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The announcement that we were forced to leave by December 2011 was made by the Bush presidency before the New Year. Hence, all declarations by Republicans – Trump, Mattis, Lindsey et al – that it was Obama’s fault are Goebbels class lies. That fact that they are repeated in Mattis’ recent book does not change that. All it does is confirm that the guys with rows of ribbons can be just as blatant liars as the psychopath in the Oval Office.
  2. The Intelligence agencies also missed, inter alia, Sisi’s coup in Egypt, Mohammed bin-Salman’s kidnapping of Lebanese Prime minister Harari, the post-Gaddafi chaos in Libya, Iran’s striking progress in missilry – demonstrated with éclat in the destruction of the Saudi petroleum complex – that nullified the U.S.’ much discussed options for military action against them, Erdogan’s refugee assault on Europe in 2015, Russia’s historic accomplishments in developing a generation of ultra-sophisticated weapons that, in some respects, outclass our own.

And, lest we forget, the failure to find Osama bin-Laden for a decade until a surprise tipster walked into our Lahore Consulate; and the failure to find al-Baghdadi until Iraqi Intelligence tracked him down in Idlib – perhaps with a tip-off from the Turks who were guardians of their long-time asset.

Successes were modest in the extreme. We did expose sleeper agent Anna Chapman after a decade or so – was it at Bloomingdale’s or Nieman-Marcus? Then there was Mueller’s heralded breakthrough in nabbing Maria Butina who had the audacity to join the NRA while in contact with its Russian chapter. The alleged gravity of her ‘crime’ matched the severity of her sentence: 8 months in solitary confinement. That gratuitous cruelty gives insight into the meanness of the prevailing mentality in the IC/counter-terrorism world – as does the abusive treatment of Manning. The unjustifiably harsh treatment seems intended to magnify the seriousness of the supposedly heinous crime – otherwise unsupported by the evidence. “Make the punishment validate the fictional crime” as the Red Queen might say.

Since 9/11, we have spent approximately $1 trillion on Intelligence. Have we gotten our money’s worth? If not – why? You decide.

  • In the Spring of 2008, legislation to extend the broad powers of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FSIA) was before the Congress. Senator Barack Obama made strongly worded comments committing himself to opposing it – indeed, to filibuster against it. When the bill came up in June, he voted in favor. Responding to criticism of his volte-face, he wrote an open letter disparaging his critics as ‘my left-wing friends.’  Three months earlier, he too had been one of those distained left-wingers. That was an augury of things to come.

Right then it should have been obvious what manner of man was on the threshold of the White House. Such is our capacity for self-delusion that even today, 11 years later, I know of no public figure of the Democratic persuasion who is prepared to hold Obama to account. Yet they are free and easy with their denunciation of Edward Snowden – the villain, the traitor.

  • In the wake of the Snowden revelations, President Obama assured the country that “no one is listening to your phone calls.” It was a bald-faced lie.


Michael Brenner is professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh; a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS-Johns Hopkins (Washington, D.C.), contributor to research and consulting projects on Euro-American security and economic issues. Publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. mbren@pitt.eduMore

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 1 Jun 2020.

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