Edward Snowden. (Courtesy of guardiannews.com)
So many questions! How much of our personal information can the NSA get at, with and without a warrant? What exactly does “server” mean on that NSA PowerPoint slide? Is Snowden in Moscow, Havana, Quito, none of the above? Tracking the fast-evolving scandal of NSA surveillance and whistleblower Edward Snowden requires a bullshit-detector cranked up to eleven. Though the NSA-Snowden affair is scarcely three weeks old, all manner of official folklore and panic-infused idées reçues have already glommed on, limpet-like, to media accounts, often deforming the story beyond recognition. Below is your handy myth-stripping guide to understanding this critical news item.
Myth 1: Leaks of top-secret material are exceedingly rare, so Edward Snowden’s transgression obviously cries out for punishment.
From the banshee reactions of various pols and pundits one might have thought that showing classified material to the media is Washington’s ultimate taboo. What rot! Official leaks are common as dirt, and one can barely go a week without reading in The New York Times or The Washington Post some story built on an unnamed high official’s confidential leaks. Good thing too, because it’s thanks to leaks that we learned the truth about the Watergate break-in, the Vietnam War, Obama’s officially “secret” drone strike program. The Bush-Cheney administration leaked classified prewar intel on Iraq to suit its interests (h/t Jack Shafer), and a top-secret memo on military strategy from Obama’s ambassador to Afghanistan, retired general Karl Eikenberry, wound up on the front page of The New York Times. (Many believe it was the White House itself that leaked that one.) Obama’s former chief of staff William Daley bragged of his leaking prowess to Politico, but made sure to give props to his predecessor Rahm Emanuel as the ultimate “leaker-in-chief.”
Washington leaks are not new; whole gastronomic guides to them have been published. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it three years ago while tamping down the panic from Bradley Manning’s mass exfiltration, “Washington has always leaked like a sieve and everyone knows it.”