As reprehensible as the leaks of NSA surveillance programs by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden are, his actions raise questions about whether more could be done to encourage would-be intelligence whistleblowers to raise their concerns through legal channels and thus protect U.S. national security.
Snowden is a traitor, not a legitimate whistleblower. There is no evidence that he made any attempt to use legal channels before he decided to violate his oath to protect U.S. national-security information by leaking classified information to the news media. I also believe the fact that he sought refuge in Hong Kong strongly suggests that he was working with Chinese intelligence.
It was Representative Justin Amash (R., Mich.) who muddied the waters in this matter by irresponsibly calling Snowden a whistleblower on a Sunday-morning talk show last weekend. By saying this, Amash justified Snowden’s traitorous behavior and may have inadvertently encouraged other intelligence officers to bring complaints about classified matters to the news media instead of to their inspectors general or the congressional intelligence-oversight committees.
Whatever their motivation, people like Snowden are a serious problem for the United States. In the 2000s, there was a flood of politically motivated leaks of classified information intended to hurt the Bush administration, many by the CIA. This included a member of the CIA inspector general’s staff who was fired in 2006 reportedly for leaking to the Washington Post. There have been numerous leaks to the press of intelligence programs and operations during the Obama administration that have hurt U.S. counterterrorism and counterproliferation efforts.
Good intelligence often takes years and great sums of money to acquire. Once compromised, many intelligence sources and methods can never be replaced. Disclosures of intelligence can also lead to loss of life, as happened when Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens, was assassinated in 1975 after his Agency employment was revealed by former CIA officer Philip Agee in his book Inside the Company. For these reasons, U.S. government employees holding security clearances serve in positions of great trust and sign oaths in which they promise to protect classified information.
There are legitimate avenues that intelligence personnel and other government employees with security clearances can use to raise classified whistleblowing concerns without damaging U.S. national security. Giving sensitive national-security information to the news media is not one of them. All U.S. government agencies have inspectors general and ombudsmen to whom employees can bring their concerns. The Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998 established the current procedures under which intelligence whistleblowers can communicate with Congress through their IGs, and they are authorized to go directly to Congress in limited circumstances.
Steps need to be taken to strengthen and publicize these avenues. This should include making the congressional intelligence-oversight committees safe harbors for intelligence whistleblowers so they can serve as a last resort where intelligence officers can lodge classified concerns about waste, fraud, abuse, civil-liberties violations, and other matters without fear of retaliation, instead of leaking classified information to the press.
Snowden has given no indication that he attempted to use legitimate channels to raise his supposed concerns before he violated his security oath by compromising sensitive NSA collection programs that were used to stop terrorist attacks against the United States. The same goes for Army private Bradley Manning, who apparently made no effort to lodge whatever complaints he had about U.S. foreign policy through Pentagon channels or with Congress before he leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks.
The desire to feel important, to bathe the ego, is an all-too-frequent motivation for intelligence leakers. This was clearly one of the key motivations behind the leaks by Snowden and Manning. They are nobodies who wanted to be famous. While I believe they did not fully understand the implications of the intelligence they compromised, they knew this information would be useful to America’s enemies.