But the ignorance of Mr Snowden’s reasons for leaking the PRISM program to the public pales in comparison to the damage he might have caused to intelligence collection in the American spy community. As a veteran of the agency, he must know about the importance of secrecy regarding a process of intelligence gathering lest it enable the enemy to alter its methods of communication.
Foreign spies and terrorists have walked free from capture even though the evidence to convict them was extremely watertight. Because the evidence was gathered by a secret process, which if it were divulged in public courtrooms could damage even more important missions, the case, critical as it might be, was discarded in favour of operational security.
In another example of operational security, during the chase for Osama bin Laden and the other members of his Al Qaeda cadre, the American Press followed the game very closely for years. Journalists wrote gripping stories about the hunt for the world’s most notorious terrorists, using information from official or semi-official government intelligence sources.
Sometimes, like the PRISM journalist at the Guardian, the information was released outside of official channels and caused a stir in U.S. government circles. One particularly damaging leak, which may have filtered down from an official source in an “off-the-record” interview, is the story of Al Qaeda’s usage of satellite phones.
An American newspaper reported the NSA was able to listen in on communications between Al Qaeda members when they used their satellite phones to talk to each other. The phone numbers had either been discovered by intelligence assets on the ground near Al Qaeda members, or discovered obliquely using other methods of SIGINT interception by NSA listeners.
The terrorist’s satellite phones, due to their mobile nature, were also able to be tracked by the NSA and a great deal of information was collected. Unfortunately for the hunters in the NSA, a journalist, either misunderstanding the importance of operational security or wishing to make a mark and a wad of cash, decided to publish the story in 1998.
Instead of being confined to an American readership, Osama bin Laden or one of his aides read a copy of the newspaper and digested the article. The Al Qaeda leader promptly discarded his satellite phone and apparently instructed his entire extremist group to do the same.
Instantly, the single best method of tracking the terrorist group disappeared and the NSA went dark on bin Laden. The story in the newspaper was interesting, and it helped sell copies, but the operational security of this particular NSA program was irreparably destroyed.
In a very similar way, the PRISM revelations damage operational security and distort the idea of protecting one’s fellow citizens. Mr Snowden understood the consequences of his actions, yet completed his adventure regardless. In wishing to embody the part of the hero and valiant whistleblower, Mr Snowden reveals he cares very little for the people he proposes to protect and serve.
In the video of his interview, Mr Snowden fantasises about being chased by various intelligence agencies for the rest of his life. His self-imposed isolation and banishment is worn as a rugged badge of pseudo-honour. But he and I clearly have extremely different views on how digital intelligence collection assists a modern, democratic state.
It’s hard to say what the world’s extremist groups are saying about PRISM in light of the leak, but they probably won’t be using the internet in the same way anymore. It’s up to America and the Western world to decide whether Mr Snowden’s noble actions to inform the public are worth the price of limiting intelligence tools designed specifically to protect us from the worst kind of people.
I don’t blame Mr Snowden for what he did, nor do I apportion blame to the journalists helping him release the information. But I do urge the public to better understand why intelligence services are important and why breaking operational security can be so incredibly damaging for every person in a modern, democratic society. Instead of hand-wringing over a loss of “privacy”, perhaps it’s better to take a long look at how much of our lives we needlessly turn digital.
Finally, there needs to be a greater amount of trust for our intelligence organisations. They are filled with people just like us, wanting to use their limited time on earth to help protect their democratic society with whatever skills they have. Collectively they wield great power, and history warns us of the temptations of such power. But if we cannot trust the best and brightest of our society to protect and serve, then how poorly does this reflect on our society?
The government will continue to develop intelligence tools to monitor and guard the way of life of the future. As new technologies emerge, new intelligence tools will be produced to leverage those machines.
Modern Western states are not the dystopias of 20th century fictions, and despite the hair-pulling predictions of civil rights activists, they are not likely to exist in the future either. Let’s put a little faith in our intelligence services to do the moral thing. They need our feedback on how much protection and freedom we want today more than ever.