Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar, and Sometimes a Spy is Just a Citizen

The media response to the revelations of NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden has been, well, interesting.  At first, he was either vilified as a ‘traitor’ or as a fake or incompetent fool.  Then, as more embarrassing information on the unconstitutional surveillance of Americans was made public, and James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, was revealed to have directly lied to Congress about the extent of NSA spying on citizens – and was not fired – some called Snowden a hero while others still insisted that he had caused (always-unspecified) “major damage” to national security.

Having viewed or listened to every interview with Snowden I have been able to locate, I was somewhat surprised at what was, for a ‘techie,’ such articulate elucidation of the political and constitutional issues involved in the mass surveillance practices he has revealed.  Yet, his employment history reported in the media reveals a pattern similar to many whistle blowers – a conversion from initial idealism to informed outrage.  His attempt to complete Special Forces training to fight in Iraq, cut short by broken legs, had ended his idealistic military aspirations.

Then, applying his deep computing skills working for the CIA and the NSA, and subsequently for Booze-Allen, a major NSA contractor, he had access to the highest levels of secret NSA operations, because as a network system administrator, he had to in order to maintain information system operations.  Now it appears that he may have also obtained some passwords that expanded his access.

With access comes knowledge.  That is where his patriotism apparently clashed with his growing awareness of the unconstitutionality of operations NSA was conducting without serious congressional oversight.  His idealism about his government was shattered by his knowledge of what it was doing in the name of ‘national security’ and ‘democracy.’  Now, some conspiracy theorists claim that he was somehow duped into revealing information that was planted for him to find.  Why?  I have no idea.  The claim that some lowly ‘insignificant’ employee could have access to such super-secret information is seen by some folks as impossible, unless some conspiracy was afoot to manipulate him… Well…

Why Edward Snowden is real – it’s easy.  Some clues had emerged from my past experience as a low-level member of the military with a Top Secret clearance and also from having worked with highly technically skilled people who contracted with the NSA, as well as with a semi-retired CIA operator/assassin. I was at first shocked, then bemused at the level of INsecurity of information involved in a number of “national security” operations from detailed data on missile sites to extremely sensitive software development for the NSA.  In the late 1980s I also learned of boots-on-the-ground absurdities in Reagan’s War on Central America, from my friend the semi-retired CIA assassin.

I eventually understood that it is quite common for “lower participants” in large organizations, who have special skills, to be given far more access to “sensitive” information than most people would expect.  The reason for this is simple: those in authority need those with technical skills to carry out the operations needed in a complex system — be they super technical or super dangerous.  Who is more capable of drilling down into the bowels of a giant complex network and “administer” its many information processing and communications functions, including security, than the proverbial young geek who learned as a child the deepest computational processes and the many ways to “hack” a system [in the sense of working one’s way around in it and seeing whatever is there] and who by young adulthood has skills that his “superiors” will never understand?

People like Edward Snowden are hired for their performance in areas and at high technical levels where very few can in fact perform effectively.  This exemplifies what sociologists call “the power of lower participants.”  There are other related powers too, such as that of the lowly administrative assistant or secretary who, by virtue of her/his position knows all the boss’s dirty secrets as well as the politics of outwardly routine actions.  It is pretty clear that Edward Snowden is one of those ‘geeks’ who can get those deep technical tasks done — or he would not have been hired by CIA, NSA, or their contractors more than once.

Then at 29, he recognized some of the political consequence of the systems he maintained, especially for the Constitution he believed he was obligated to faithfully defend.  So, having reflected on the role of secrecy and surveillance in transforming a democracy into a totalitarian state with a democratic façade, he rebelled against participating in that corrupt process and risked his life – just as he might have as a Special Forces operator – in defense of the constitution he believes in.  Edward Snowden, it would appear, is still an idealistic citizen.

Citizenship knows no rank.  And rank does not necessarily correlate with intelligence or even military or business skills.  How do you think all those generals and admirals got to the top of the security/surveillance establishment?  Conformity, group-think, bureaucratic maneuvering, etc., are entirely different skills than creative analysis, whether of information systems software and hardware or of organizational situations or technical or tactical operations.  They are very different from critical thinking – the former are the skills it takes to rise to the rank of general.

Critical thinking, in contrast, leads to understanding.  That is why William Boyd, known as the greatest fighter pilot who ever lived, and the man who changed air combat and Marine maneuvering strategy forever, despite his huge accomplishments never made the rank of general – he frequently bucked a corrupt military-contractor system to achieve valued goals.  Boyd’s work was anything but superficial, nor do I suspect was Snowden’s, both of whom had special skills and seriously took creative risks for what they believed was right.  In an era of extreme cynicism, it is hard for many to imagine that a lowly systems analyst would risk his life to take an action based on an idealistic belief in his responsibility as a citizen, yet there you have it.

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