From all that has been written, one wonders whether anything new can be said about Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. The most obvious questions—who, what, where, when, and how—have been exhaustively aired. Many others, regardless of how much ink we are prepared to spill, cannot be answered based on what we presently know. Here I have in mind things like the quality of the FISA court’s reasoning in decisions that as yet remain secret.
Yet in our determination to chronicle these still-unfolding events, it seems we have paid too little attention to the most important question. What do these two episodes, viewed broadly and in their most capacious sense, reveal about ourselves and our times? I’m not sure I can answer this question fully. In fact, I’m fairly confident I cannot, at least not in the space allotted to me. But perhaps articulating a question that others have overlooked and venturing part of an answer, no matter how tentative and incomplete, is still worthwhile.
It is possible to dismiss my question with a wave and a word: “What do they tell us? Nothing.” Two cases do not a pattern make, and perhaps these episodes represent nothing more than unconnected events set in motion by unrelated actors. They could have happened anywhere, anytime, or so some may say. But there is something intuitively unsatisfying about this answer, if only because the episodes, at least as I see them, include more than the disclosures. We must also take account of the extraordinary response they initiated. Not all shots are heard round the world, and when we come upon one that is, we should take heed of both the shot and the world into which it was fired.
So let me state my question somewhat more precisely: What does it tell us about our life and times that Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, two otherwise anonymous functionaries in the incomprehensibly vast machinery of the American military complex, have—within three years of each other—committed both the largest and apparently most important unauthorized release of classified material in American history, with a rippling and widening impact that continues to be felt across the globe? That’s what I want to know.
Time may prove me wrong, but in answering this question, I think we can firmly set aside the claim by the Obama Administration and its allies on the left and right that these disclosures have had a crippling effect on national security. Take, for instance, Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA. It seems perfectly obvious that leaks that enhance the myth of American technological wizardry, without also disclosing how the wizard works his magic, do no damage to national security. A disclosure which nurtures the naïve belief that with the flick of a switch a beltway bureaucrat can eavesdrop on any electronic, telephonic, or Internet signal anywhere in the world can only have one effect: to make those who seek to conceal their activity incrementally less likely to speak on the phone, send emails, scan websites, and do all the things that are now essential to life in the modern world, including planning and executing a terrorist attack. If Edward Snowden has singlehandedly reduced international terrorists to communicating by carrier pigeon and smoke signal, he should be given a medal.
Manning’s disclosures to Wikileaks, though, are somewhat more difficult to categorize, if only because they are so voluminous. The fact is, however, that the government consistently describes the risk from his disclosures as merely possible or potential, and does not distinguish between those outcomes that genuinely threaten national security and those that do their damage simply by causing embarrassment. Only the former deserves our attention. In Manning’s criminal trial, the defense has tried to argue that the disclosures have had, at most, a trivial effect on national security, and has sought the release of government assessments that it believes reach precisely this conclusion. The government, in turn, resists this thrust with the ironic insistence that any inquiry into harm is “speculative,” notwithstanding the fact that the sought-after assessments apparently asked—and answered—that very question.
Yet the howls and protests by the Obama Administration are nonetheless extremely important, if only because they stand in such pointed contrast to some of the president’s other recent remarks—remarks that now seem to have been forgotten.
In mid-May, President Obama gave what was only his second speech about national security since his election in 2008. In remarks from National Defense University, he described the current nature of the terrorist threat confronting the United States. He explained that nearly twelve years after 9/11, the greatest threat comes not from organized groups but from isolated individuals who are attracted to radical ideologies. In this assessment, Obama is absolutely correct. For many years, the official consensus of the intelligence community, here and abroad, has recognized that al-Qaeda is a hapless remnant of its former self, and that its copy-cat followers around the world (often misleadingly called affiliates) are focused on internal change rather than external terror.
As one expert recently concluded, al-Qaeda is badly damaged. Even at its peak, it had little support in the Muslim world; more recently, it played no role in the protest movements that swept through parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Even before bin Laden’s death, its decimated leadership was barely able to communicate with its few remaining foot soldiers, let alone conceive and execute significant attacks against the United States. Material taken from bin Laden’s compound revealed “a beleaguered movement, a battered movement, and a leader” who realized he was “losing control.”
In the national security assessment of 2009, Dennis Blair, then the director of national intelligence for the Obama administration, reported that the threat of terrorism was no longer the greatest risk facing the United States, a position he repeated in 2010. His successor, James Clapper, said in 2011 that while terrorism “will remain at the forefront of our national security threats,” al-Qaeda “continues to be damaged” by U.S. counterterrorism efforts. In addition, “the loss of experienced personnel” has forced al-Qaeda to turn to “smaller, simpler” plots, if only “to demonstrate its continued relevance to the global jihad.”
In 2012 Clapper was more explicit about the organization’s “diminishing . . . operational importance.” He said it was the consensus of the intelligence community that al-Qaeda, increasingly fragmented and lacking a charismatic leader, would henceforth play little more than a “symbolic” role. John Brennan, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, described al-Qaeda in April 2012 as “a shadow of its former self. . . . They’re struggling to attract new recruits. Morale is low, with intelligence indicating that some members are giving up and returning home. . . . In short, al-Qaeda is losing, badly.”
With al-Qaeda neutralized and its sympathizers otherwise engaged, the terrorist threat now comes from isolated individuals, whether they fly a plane into a building in Texas or detonate explosives at a race in Boston. But as Obama rightly pointed out in his May speech, this is precisely the sort of environment we faced before 9/11. The terror threat, in other words, had receded to the point where we confront not the challenge of organized warfare but the risk of random crime. It was finally time, he said, to stand down from our wartime footing and end some of our more controversial post-9/11 practices.
But Obama did not merely describe the current threat environment and the response it warranted. For that, he could’ve dispatched junior advisors to the Sunday morning talk shows. In addition, he went to great lengths to defend his vision in the symbolically potent language of national identity. Invoking the soaring rhetoric for which he is so well known, and drawing on the shared ideals of freedom, the rule of law, and the dignity of the individual, he wove his preferred approach to the present terrorist threat into a grand narrative about “who we are” as a nation, and insisted that his vision is most faithful to our true character.
It was an exceedingly important speech, and many of us, myself included, were hopeful that it signaled a turning point, the beginning of the end of our post-9/11 nightmare. But a few days later, the Washington Post and the Guardian made Edward Snowden a household name. Suddenly, in the government’s haste to defend the NSA program, all the talk of a safer world and a pre-9/11 perspective was chased off the public square. The speech in May was quickly forgotten, and the lofty language about “who we are” faded like an echo in a canyon. Today, all we hear are the same dire warnings about hidden threats that we have heard since the “dark side” days of Dick Cheney.
Of course, it is possible to reconcile the two Obamas: the Obama in May who reassured us that the threat from organized terror had shriveled to nearly nothing, and the Obama in June who warned that none of us could be safe unless the federal government had the power to eavesdrop on any electronic, telephonic, or Internet signal anywhere in the world, including the United States. We can imagine a government official saying we used the latter to achieve the former. Indeed, the response is so obvious that one wonders why we have not heard it. But to date, the government has not tied the sanguine state of affairs described in May to the spying disclosed in June. To be sure, the Obama Administration has said the spying allowed the government to thwart attacks—a claim that some in Congress have challenged—but the notion that the threat from organized terror has all but disappeared is no longer part of the administration’s rhetoric.
The hopeful promise of spring is gone, and with it, the president’s credibility. For the reason the government does not tie May to June is that doing so risks a discussion about whether the power, even if it were needed once, remains necessary. May is therefore forgotten. The threat remains grave in order to set the debate on the administration’s terms.
This at last brings us back to Manning and Snowden, and to what their actions reveal about our life and times. Obama spoke in May about “who we are” and challenged the nation to reflect on whether we still needed our post-9/11 machinery. In June, some of this machinery came to light, and we learned that this is “who we are.” We discovered that we do these things not because we must, but because we can. For surely the best measure of national identity—of “who we are”—looks at what a country does when it knows it can do otherwise rather than when it believes it cannot.
We are the nation that has chosen to combine technological ability, military strength, and commercial influence in some secret alchemy to conjure a right to spy on anyone, anywhere, anytime. We are the country that holds prisoners indefinitely without trial, though they have been twice cleared for transfer by two different administrations. We are the state that claims the right to circle drones over any skies and unleash missiles without regard to another state’s sovereignty. That is who we are.
And I chose my words advisedly, for one cannot simply blame “Washington” for this state of affairs. For many years, we (meaning the greater part of the American public) have insisted that no price is too high, moral or financial, if it purchases the illusion of perfect security. Over this period, we have conditioned our political classes to believe that they will be punished severely if they opt against this bargain and some calamity should befall us. Since 9/11, we have repeatedly seen the results of this poisonous negotiation.
For many, these code-named programs and secret policies sit uncomfortably with their illusions about the United States. They squirm in silent protest or shake their head in stunned disbelief at what we have become. But others are moved to more active roles. They take what steps they can, though it no more derails the juggernaut than it did in another era to throw blood on the steps of the Pentagon. “I’m just an American,” Edward Snowden said, as if that explained everything. Perhaps it does.