In late March of this year, the New York Times reported on the latest revelations to emerge from Edward Snowden’s seemingly endless trove of classified documents. This round of disclosures confirms the intuitive notion that the NSA has been reacting in kind to Chinese cyber attacks on American businesses. While it has been difficult to directly link these shadowy activities to China’s People’s Liberation Army, many in the intelligence community believe they are state-sponsored, although Beijing has adamantly denied these claims.
While debate about the Snowden leaks has often centered on bulk collection of communications data from U.S. citizens, the China disclosures, as well as those regarding espionage against allied leaders, seem to be addressed to the international community. Snowden’s motivation in foreign relations is difficult to understand and is a blow to his credibility as a conscientious whistleblower. While the American people should be aware of the spying apparatus that has been built around them, revealing the NSA’s behavior towards foreign powers is a highly questionable move.
Part of these actions could be an outgrowth of Snowden’s overall strategy. The purpose of the gradual leaks, as opposed to a WikiLeaks-style mass release, is to keep the pressure on our leaders. Rather than fizzling out, the Snowden story has maintained traction in the media because the former NSA contractor keeps the information flowing. Thus, what he chooses to reveal may not necessarily reflect what he thinks is most intolerable, but rather what will make headlines. While this tactic seems to have been successful in moving Obama away from his defense of the NSA, it is not in our interest to inflame the international community and hamstring diplomacy.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was understandably forthright last year in expressing her outrage over being a victim of spying. Germany is one of our most important allies because of its position as a pillar of NATO and savior of the Euro Zone. However, I would conjecture that many in our network of alliances are carrying out some degree of spying.
According to Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University, this would hardly be a departure from history. “ [Spying] has been going on for centuries,” Kupchan said. “ Mutual spying is ‘common knowledge’ among practitioners.”
Nothing good comes from publicly revealing what foreign leaders already know, and doing so only serves to harm their credibility back home and shrink their latitude in dealing with the United States.
In this manner, the China disclosures are harmful. The country’s cyber attacks on the U.S. are alarming, and I expect the NSA to return fire. While the escalation of these attacks is concerning, revealing them only exacerbates the problem by limiting the effectiveness of diplomacy. When the international public knows that China is being hacked, it forces the regime to dig in They would now be coming to the negotiating table from a position of weakness, stoking fiery Chinese nationalism. The Communist Party is left with much less room to maneuver than Mrs. Merkel, and working out a solution to this growing problem is now even more difficult.
While the rate of Snowden’s disclosures is tactful, his process of selection appears to be more incautious in comparison. This betrays his image of being a well-meaning whistleblower who carefully selects files to release. Instead, his actions ultimately cast him more as a troublemaker under the protection of a despotic regime, attacking the intelligence establishment indiscriminately to keep our leaders on the defensive. The only way these disclosures coincide with his privacy scruples is if he feels the United States government should protect the privacy of foreigners as much as its own citizens. While it’s a nice idea, I think it is flawed.
For one thing, the Ukraine crisis has illustrated an alarming weakness in our foreign intelligence capacity. Analysts agree that we were caught flat-footed by Putin’s invasion of Crimea and were left scrambling to guess his next moves. Furthermore, would we really trust the oligarchs in Beijing and Moscow to climb with us to some higher moral ground? Or would we expect them to ramp up their own intelligence gathering and be craftier in their dealings with us? I suspect the latter and do not believe a drawdown of foreign espionage would be answered in the same good faith.