PARIS -- Anyone who knows anything about the real world of intelligence and espionage knows that James Bond is a joke who wouldn't survive his first day on the job (and not just because he'd fall asleep during static surveillance). But just try explaining to people that Agent 007 bears absolutely no resemblance to the reality of espionage profession. So it shouldn't come as any surprise that intelligence-leaking NSA contractor Edward Snowden -- with his lack of understanding of the intelligence apparatus, given that he's a tech guy and not an intelligence specialist -- would impress a significant portion of the general public.
Ever since Snowden ran off to Hong Kong and started spilling America's national security secrets to a British newspaper, people who normally find themselves glued to "Mad Men" and "Game of Thrones" are suddenly spouting off about the merits of classified information management as it pertains to America's national security interests. Would these same people believe themselves capable of fixing their car's brakes after watching a mechanic do it once?
High-level intelligence and information can't be armchair quarterbacked -- something that my own masters-level university students learn at the outset of their two-year course of study. As they quickly realize, handling and presenting information only looks easy. It's why bloggers end up getting themselves sued with the sort of faulty word selection that professional journalists would easily avoid. Before Snowden, another self-styled whistleblower, WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, set himself up for a lifetime of hiding inside an Ecuadorian embassy by neglecting to consult with a journalist or other information specialist before dumping a load of classified documents into the public domain.
Information is the most valuable and powerful currency on earth. What typically isn't assessed by information and intelligence amateurs is the law of blow-back and unintended consequences -- something that political, military and information-operation strategists have to consider when planning any move. But Snowden isn't an information specialist or strategist. While Snowden may very well have felt that he was leaking national intelligence for virtuous reasons, the outcome is already providing fodder for America's biggest competitors -- a phenomenon that Snowden is unable to mitigate given his inexperience with information operations. And at what gain to Snowden and his civil libertarian fan base?
At some point, Snowden should have asked himself, "Is a public debate about a clandestine sector whose functioning is quite likely beyond the depth of the average citizen's understanding more important than the leveraging of such information by my country's competitors and enemies?"
Unless people were being hunted down and dragged out of their homes by authorities due to the information that the NSA was collecting, it's difficult to objectively validate Snowden's choice.
Russian state media has already seized upon the opportunity, blatantly pitting Snowden against Obama, asking, "Who is looking after protecting (the rights of world citizens)?" During a roundtable in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked what he thought about Snowden's revelations about government data mining. Visibly amused, Putin responded in Russian, "He told us nothing we didn't know before. ... Such methods are generally practicable. As long as it's exercised within the boundaries of the law that regulates intelligence activities, it's all right."
Has Snowden accomplished anything beyond giving authoritarian governments a license to practice Cold War-style "what-about-ism," whereby they can claim that surveillance measures in their countries are equivalent to those in America?
It would be easier to sympathize with Snowden's motives if intelligence was being used against Americans to hunt them down or kill them, as other regimes are wont to do. But the democratic safeguards in place prohibit illegally obtained intelligence from being admissible in a court of law under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.
Snowden revealed through the Guardian that Britain's signals intelligence agency, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), had the capacity to intercept electronic communications of dignitaries who attended London's 2009 G20 summit. But, as the Guardian itself points out, such things are perfectly legal with ministerial authority.
In America and other legitimately democratic nations, intelligence collection and law enforcement are distinctly separate entities. This is not the case with many of America's competitors, who can show up at your door, drag you out of your home and impose a lifetime sentence in a prison labor camp based solely on wiretaps and a show trial, because there are no checks and balances within their systems. In these counties, the life of an average citizen can be deemed to be worth no more than the price of a bullet.
Snowden's amateurism has just given these regimes more ammunition.