A Look Back at Snowden in the Press

National Security Agency headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland

NSA HQ, Fort Meade, Maryland. NSA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a worthwhile thought exercise: considering China and the United States only, which state’s media would be the most aggressive in criticizing a foreign government for suppressing individual liberty and stifling free domestic press coverage? Before the Edward Snowden case, the United States would likely be the answer. Interestingly when articles from China Daily, People’s Daily, and New York Times are examined, a distinctly different narrative emerges. The Snowden Case has provided the Chinese media with a golden opportunity to champion individual liberties and criticize US surveillance policies. Conversely, the US press coverage has been more reactionary, framing the Snowden case as a statist US-China confrontation rather than a domestic political debate gone global.

The reaction of the Chinese press has focused on the controversial NSA policies illuminated by the Snowden files; US press coverage instead covered the reactions of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments’. “Surveillance programs reveal U.S. hypocrisy,” reads the headline of a June 14, 2013 article from the People’s Daily – the word “hypocrisy” is borrowed from a Snowden quote referenced in the article. Calling for a “serious self-examination” of US government policies vis-à-vis the NSA, the article deftly uses American voices to construct its argument citing comments from The New Yorker and USA Today. This stands in diametric opposition to comments from the American press that automatically regard Chinese press criticisms of American policies as party-line rhetoric, or as New York Times columnist Joe Nocera writes “another classic response.”

The dichotomy should be clear; Chinese media emphasizes the theme of liberty and ethics while US coverage of Snowden attempts to shift the debate to one of security. Nocera’s piece addresses the problem of US cyber espionage policy linking it to China’s own cyber espionage programs noting that the Snowden scandal will make it “far more difficult to force the Chinese to get serious about sopping their own hacking.” This commentary remains firmly grounded in the ideological camp which condones hacking behavior. Chen Wiehua of the China Daily takes a far more comprehensive view asking:

In the US, (…), the discussion in the mainstream media is often limited to whether the surveillance program has violated US citizen’s rights. Very few seem to question whether such invasive surveillance programs on governments, institutions and citizens of other countries are legal or, for that matter, ethical.

Mr. Wiehua’s article presents solid evidence to back this claim; evidence that is noticeably absent in Nocera’s discussion. Meanwhile, the US media response underscores the vast gulf in tone and substance between Chinese and American reporting surrounding the Snowden case. Indeed, rather than addressing the criticisms raised by their Chinese press, an article in the New York Times simply dismissed the Chinese media response as “snide.”

While both the US and Chinese press considered the Snowden imbroglio within the US-China diplomatic frame, US commentary has consistently played up a confrontational tone between the two states. The Chinese media response has not been beyond reproach in all areas. In fact, the Chinese have overlooked their cyber espionage capabilities by waving the bloody shirt noting, “the United States has a matchless superiority and ability to launch cyber attacks around the globe.” Fact: the United States has met its cyber match with China. Regardless, press coverage on both sides viewed the governments as having a monopoly on decision-making power.

The Snowden Case has provided the Chinese media with the rare opportunity to levy ethical, moral, and policy criticisms against the United States. It is disheartening to see that the Snowden coverage in major American newspapers lacks the moment of national self-reflection that Snowden likely hoped to unleash by releasing the NSA files. Both China and the United States carry a clear policy bias, however, coverage of the Snowden case gets at the broader theme of how globalization does guarantee that no two international takes on one story are the same.

On America’s “Culture of Leaks”

 

Those individuals who believe Edward Snowden is a hero who exposed Big Brother should think twice. It may be easy to support an increasingly popular culture of Internet leaks and freedom of information for all things sensitive, but it is more difficult to examine the long-term consequences and implications of Snowden and other leakers’ actions for U.S. national security. While leaking has occurred long before Snowden and Manning, a new culture of internet freedom in which every tech-savvy person can be a world hero by disclosing government secrets seems to be growing in the U.S. I am very wary of this misguided “culture of leaks.” The leaking of sensitive information, even if well-intentioned, exposes some of our nation’s most sensitive sources and methods to terrorist organizations and foreign intelligence services, which makes us all less secure.

Let’s start with Snowden. This man did not merely blow the whistle, he trumpeted a storm. Snowden could have chosen to carefully release only the documents that succinctly showed violations of NSA surveillance policy and a potential overstepping of government surveillance, but instead he opted to flee to Russia and Hong Kong with multiple computers filled with highly-classified NSA security programs and other sensitive data. I am still dumbfounded that a man who preaches privacy and freedom would scurry away to Russia, one of the most oppressive great powers in the world today. In addition to this highly questionable circumstance, Snowden’s seemingly indiscriminate release of sensitive information cost the U.S. government dearly in research and development, resulted in a loss of international prestige, turned attention away from regimes that actually oppress their people, and damaged U.S. national security capabilities. Responsible whistleblowing takes restraint, thoughtful planning, and thorough exhaustion of internal channels, standards that are seemingly absent from Snowden’s actions.

Now that we understand Edward Snowden is no Deep Throat, I want to touch on Wikileaks, one of the biggest players on the receiving end of our leak culture. I am astonished that an organization dedicated to the mass transmission of our state secrets to all peoples and governments commands respect among so many fellow citizens. If these were the days of the Cold War when America faced the more discernable threat of a nuclear-armed “Evil Empire,” I doubt as many Americans would be supportive of a global databank of U.S. sources and methods ripe for the picking. My generation seems to forget that it is not just terrorists in the Middle East that threaten our national security, but also foreign governments. Just about every competent nation is constantly seeking to penetrate our private industry and government to steal sensitive trade information and government secrets. Indeed, there is no such thing as a “friendly” intelligence service. These foreign intelligence services and hostile transnational groups have already scoured Snowden’s leaked data and have adjusted their methods accordingly. I would not be surprised if Snowden was already debriefed by Russian intelligence officers. U.S. citizens should be more wary of global institutions that eagerly await more leakers to approach them for “assistance.” Organizations like Wikileaks, unlike the Intelligence Community, do not have a loyalty to our country and are working to further their own interests, which can vary from world fame to fulfilling certain ideological goals.

As Snowden relaxes and drinks Russian vodka at a dacha (cottage) near Moscow, U.S. national security professionals are in damage control mode. Now more than ever, our adversaries have a better understanding of how our national security apparatus operates and have adapted their operations accordingly. These groups include both terrorist cells that are constantly planning to attack U.S. and Allied targets, as well as foreign intelligence services that seek to steal our industry trade secrets and sensitive government information to gain an economic, political, and military edge. Indeed, I would be very hesitant to readily praise Snowden, Manning, Anonymous, and other distressing groups or individuals. As a concerned citizen, it’s up to you to counter this malice with two easy actions. First, read a few books and/or articles about our security services and the threats facing our country to gain a more complete understanding of current global challenges and the proper function of our Intelligence Community. To start, I would personally recommend Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy by Mark Lowenthal and a student subscription to The Economist. Second, and most importantly, consider finding ways to become involved in our government in order to responsibly facilitate the improvements you may wish to enact. This involvement could range from grassroots advocacy activities such as writing letters to your Congressman to interning for an Executive branch agency, an NGO/think tank, or Congress. We should not have to wait for unlawful and misguided security leaks for calls to activism and civic involvement. Our generation needs to make a more robust effort to become involved in the governmental process, and perhaps even work directly for the institutions that run our government in order to face these challenges. Our country deserves no less from our generation, and mere armchair activism via social media will not suffice.

The Emerging Threat of Cyber Espionage Against US Economic Interests

Major Issues and Recommendations for a Stronger US Cyber Defense Capability

A comprehensive report recently released by Mandiant, a private information security firm, has confirmed China’s expansive cyber espionage operations against US private industry. This report has aroused debate in the public sphere regarding US cyber vulnerabilities. However, state-sponsored cyber espionage has been well documented as early as 2006 and has resulted in at least hundreds of terabytes of data theft (Mandiant 2013, 20). The main perpetrators have been identified as China, Russia, France, Israel, and most recently, countries in the Middle East such as Iran (Booz Allen Hamilton 2012, 8). Due to the increasing number of monthly cyber attacks on US economic interests, information security professionals in the private and public sectors have criticized the US Government’s inability to effectively address this growing concern. While the threat of catastrophic cyber warfare is often overhyped, the threat of economic espionage through cyber attacks is not, and public criticism of US cyber security vulnerabilities is valid.

Cyber espionage endangers America’s global economic prowess and national security. China, Russia, and other states continuously steal many years worth of R&D from private US companies to expedite their economic development. It is estimated that these efforts to increase political and military power via cyber espionage have resulted in the loss of tens of billions of dollars from US firms (Nakashima 2013). If left unaddressed, this growing threat could result in the theft of sensitive trade secrets that would severely impact national security, especially if the companies and data involved contain sensitive military secrets such as classified aircraft designs.

One of the greatest challenges in addressing cyber espionage is the current lack of effective attribution methods. This critical absence of sufficient detection techniques allows both state and non-state actors to conceal their roles in cyber espionage and therefore avoid public reprimands from the US Government and the international community (Economist 2012). In Russia, for example, the unique nexus between government, organized crime, and business makes Russian cyber attacks very difficult to track, especially since the government purportedly employs underground youth hacking networks to achieve its cyber espionage objectives (Smith 2012, 3). The US Government needs to increase its coordination efforts with private industry to develop more sophisticated cyber attack attribution techniques in order deter state actors from committing further economic espionage.

Efforts at collaboration between US Government entities and the private sector are hampered by a secretive and inconsistent US cyber policy. The Obama Administration has apparently begun drafting internal cyber security policy and has directed certain agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, to allocate more funding for cyber security initiatives (Sanger and Shanker 2013). However, many outside experts have indicated that the US Government and the private sector are not sufficiently collaborating to ameliorate the cyber threat (Wolf 2012, 11). The US Government cannot expect private businesses to defend themselves against the penetration efforts of foreign intelligence services. Therefore, policymakers and private industry leaders need to forge closer relations, develop a more coherent cyber defense policy, and share information regarding current threats and trends to provide for a stronger US cyber defense capability.