Three Years On, It Appears Snowden's Leaks Have Damaged The NSA So Badly It's Healthier Than Ever

from the like-pruning-a-bush-with-a-bunch-of-microphones-hidden-inside-of-it dept

Every time the anniversary of the first Snowden leak rolls around, everyone reassesses the damage… or lack thereof. Did Snowden actually make a dent in the surveillance apparatus or did he do little more than hand out cheat sheets to terrorists?

As more time passes, even Snowden’s harshest critics are warming up to the idea that his leaks did more good than harm. Former attorney general Eric Holder, to name one such critic, believes Snowden “performed a public service” by leaking surveillance documents. Of course, this is the sort of thing one can safely say when no longer in the position of having to choose between prosecuting Snowden or dropping the bogus espionage charges.

Over at Lawfare — a site whose writers are almost universally critical of Snowden — one contributor (a former DoD lawyer) sees Snowden’s leaks as beneficial. Jack Goldsmith’s take on the NSA leak fallout finds that Snowden’s actions actually made the NSA a better agency — not just in terms of transparency but in terms of capabilities.

Snowden forced the intelligence community out of its suboptimal and unsustainable obsession with secrecy… Snowden made it realize that, in the words of former NSA Director Michael Hayden, “although the public cannot be briefed on everything, there has to be enough out there so that the majority of the population believe what they are doing is acceptable.”


Forced transparency meant that the intelligence community had to justify itself before the American people for the first time ever—about what it did in the domestic arena and abroad, about the legality of and accountability for its actions, and about its importance to U.S. national security.

Goldsmith points out that the transparency the NSA definitely didn’t want ended up being good for it. As he sees it, the agency “had a story to tell” about its national security efforts and Snowden’s leaks sort of freed it to tell its side of the story.

He also says the NSA’s narrative about its “lawful” programs being practically smothered by oversight has held up. As proof of this, he offers up quotes from PCLOB (Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board) members who found the NSA’s Section 702 collection to have “played a key role” in disrupting terrorist activity. However, Goldsmith does gloss over the PCLOB’s other key finding: that the bulk collection under Section 215 was not only unconstitutional, but worthless.

Goldsmith also says Snowden’s revelations have led to better control of NSA surveillance programs. But even though he rearranges his sentences a bit to push forward with this claim, he still arrives at a contradictory conclusion.

Another criticism of the NSA was that its aggressive collection processes abroad did not consider the rights and interests of foreign individuals and firms. The main response was Presidential Policy Directive 28, which imposed restraints on collection abroad in the interests of non-U.S. citizens. PPD 28 does not have sharp teeth and, while it has reportedly been a pain to implement, will not likely have a material impact on U.S. collection practices. Like many post-Snowden reforms, it imposes process and oversight constraints and forces NSA to be more prudent in its collection practices.

Somehow, this directive is simultaneously toothless and constraining. Hmm.

But his overall point remains accurate, if somewhat unfortunate. The NSA did have to become more transparent, but considering it was starting from total darkness, it’s easy to oversell its occasional translucence.

In addition, reform efforts resulting from the leaks may have given the NSA additional collection powers.

The bulk telephone metadata program was legally and on the merits the most controversial program that Snowden revealed, and the one that the NSA seemed least interested in preserving. The USA Freedom Act made some important reforms to this program—most notably, by replacing NSA collection and storage of the metadata with carrier storage of the data and by requiring more limited NSA querying of the data pursuant to court approval. And yet the NSA has ended up in a stronger position as a result. It gets access “a greater volume of call records” than before, according to the NSA general counsel, and probably at a lower cost to itself, since it no longer needs to store and organize the massive quantities of data.

On the other hand, there’s no denying Snowden’s leaks played a significant role in the revival of end-to-end encryption and other privacy/security efforts. This does appear to be more of a law enforcement “problem” than an intelligence one at this point, but without Snowden, it’s hard to believe everyone from Apple to Facebook would be engaged in securing the world’s communications.

Also undeniable is the fact that there has been no spike in terrorist activity or any meaningful disruption in the NSA’s surveillance apparatus. The NSA first responded as though Snowden were a rogue magician giving away the industry’s secrets. Now, it’s calmed down. It’s not any happier about Snowden’s disappearance and his subsequent leakage, but it could be in much worse shape than it is three years down the road.

The NSA is still very much in the business of aggressive signals intelligence around the globe. Its domestic legal authorities are sounder. Its value is more apparent to the American public. It is much more adept at public diplomacy. And its central and expanding role going forward—not just for signals intelligence collection, but for cybersecurity and offensive cyber operations—are secure.

While it’s unlikely the NSA is throwing parties in Snowden’s honor every June 6th, it can’t be displeased with the outcome. It appears to have been more embarrassed than damaged — and it may not like the additional scrutiny and skepticism that greets it every move — but it’s still pretty much intact after three years of “damaging” leaks.

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Comments on “Three Years On, It Appears Snowden's Leaks Have Damaged The NSA So Badly It's Healthier Than Ever”

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Peculiar dynamic of government

“In the private sector, failure is the prelude to extinction”

Unless you’re a bank, in which case the government has to bail you out so the executives who caused the mess can grab a golden parachute. Socialise the risk, privatise the reward. Plenty of other examples where that came from.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Peculiar dynamic of government

Socialize the risk…

So true, all the anti-capitalists and anti-free market idiots think that there is something magic about socialism… that if they give power to a politicians that greed goes away and there is no longer a path for large companies to rape people and the land.

Little do they know that supporting socialism is what leads them down the very path they “CLAIM” to wish to avoid. Had we kept to free market & capitalist principles those business would have been left to fail as they should have.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Peculiar dynamic of government

“Socialize the risk…”

A very simple term but the idiocy you spewed in the following paragraph didn’t bear any relationship to its meaning. Criticising the corporations worshipped by some around here doesn’t make you anti-capitalist.

“Had we kept to free market & capitalist principles those business would have been left to fail as they should have.”

Taking large numbers of other companies with them and destroying the lives of millions more people, especially the most vulnerable and powerless to alter things.

I know free-market obsessives tend to have no grasp on the terms they use, especially when whining about “socialism”. But, the unfettered free market was tried before, and it wasn’t pretty for a lot of ordinary people.

Pretending that everything would be great if only the bad bad guvmint was left out of it is even more stupid than saying the the government should control everything (something you’ll notice nobody has said).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Peculiar dynamic of government

I am not sure you are capable of rational thought.

You are apparently calling the people the founded the greatest nation on Earth a bunch of idiots as well. They fully supported Capitalim & Free market you know the system that Made America the greatest world power, and you call it idiocy? If you live in the US you are no patriot!

No economic plan is perfect, but Capitalism combined with Free Market combined with Strong Anti-monopoly/Anti-trust laws is the best one. Regulation just takes away from free market and provides one stop shopping for every businesses corruption needs as proven beyond any shadow of doubt in the American government right now. And if you are anti-capitalist then you ARE SOCIALIST because the principal of capitalism is that people can own their own business. Otherwise the government owns your business and anyone with even a small amount of wisdom knows how bad that is going to turn out!

Your way, or any other way for that matter, creates more corruption and destruction, the very shit your kind likes to “CLAIM” they want to avoid. So go pound sand, because that is about the most intelligent thing you are capable of.

Sadly, your level of ignorance is the world norm, which is why the world suffers more than it prospers. It’s too easy to fool idiots like you into voting for sweet talking politicians that bend you over every damn time! Maybe you have Stockholm Syndrome or something?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Peculiar dynamic of government

Yet often do I see folk like you that do not understand the English language.

Socialism is a human desire to have the state control their life even though it harms them more than it helps! There IS a relation to Stockholm syndrome that can be drawn here.

Capitalism and Free market is the desire to be FREE from the shackles of the state so that none but one’s own self decides their fate. You have to be a special kind of stupid to compare that to Stockholm’s.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Peculiar dynamic of government

Recommended reading: The Ireland Famine of 1845, aka the Great Famine, aka the Irish Potato Famine.

There’s a bit of laissez-faire capitalism for you: more food than the local population could eat, but since it was export food owned by rich capitalists, and emergency food shipments failed, people starved and died. Over a million enjoyed starvation to their demise for your ideology.

I’m sure Google will provide you with plenty of thoughts on the matter.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Peculiar dynamic of government

Wow, can definitely see a lot of ignorant folks in here.

American is falling more and more as we move more towards socialism. Europe is falling to multiculturalism, China is overtaking the world economically.

And yet, I still see the lot of you still clamoring for more failure. The government is corrupt and you ask for more corruption. People are poor and you ask for more poor. Politicians lie to your face daily and you still believe their words. They play you all for fools against each other and you value nothing of the truth or history.

There is no institution among men that will last without corruption, but there are some like capitalism & free market that are more resistant to that corruption.

Socialism is the disease that says keep your corrupt leg allowing it to corrupt the body in a vain attempt to save it. The history of socialism is well documented. Perhaps you should pick up a book and see where the blame truly lay?

Neither socialism or capitalism themselves are what is bad about them. What is bad about them are the corruptible humans serving as the stewards of them. In socialism, the government picks winners and losers and increases the level of corruption and difficulty in a nation ridding itself of that corruption. In Capitalism, the corruption is more difficult to achieve but easier to rid oneself of it.

We repeat history now because you all have failed to learn from it. We repeat history because you have been brain washed to believe that a system and not the humans are what is wrong with things. The same stupidity that can believe guns & swords kill, instead of the humans pulling the trigger or swinging the sword!

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Peculiar dynamic of government

LOLWUT! I’m Irish, and believe me your god Capitalism didn’t save us, it was actually the problem. To see the way the Von Mises Institute rewrite history is to view a masterclass in political gymnastics in the way they try to blame the government’s allocation of property rights for the problem. Actually, the problem was a blight on our spuds and the powers that be not being willing to lift a finger to help. Laissez-faire was the order of the day, and you can still see the decimation of our population written off as the market correcting itself.

Governments are run by people. Corporations are creatures of government run by people. There is no such thing as the free market and there never has been, unless your idea of a free market means, “Screw the little guy,” in which case we’ve totally got it and always have.

Socialising risk is corporate socialism if you want to call it that, but that means that the government owns the people not the means of production. That’s not true, it’s disavowing any responsibility for maintaining us. What we’re seeing is fascism. Call it by its true name.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Peculiar dynamic of government

“You are apparently calling the people the founded the greatest nation on Earth a bunch of idiots as well. They fully supported Capitalim & Free market you know the system that Made America the greatest world power, and you call it idiocy? If you live in the US you are no patriot!”

I don’t live in the US, but I understand history. The people who founded your country supported slavery, often in the cause of capitalism. They supported a system that sent small children into mines and factories instead of schools. They supported a system that disenfranchised blacks and women, as well as the poor.

Most of this was in the cause of capitalism. The government has had to step in to make capitalists do everything from offer a living wage to not polluting rivers so much that they literally catch fire. Yet, you seem to think that giving them free reign would lead to utopia.

Sorry, you’re the idiot here, and one who lacks both knowledge and the ability to learn from what I can see.

Greg says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Peculiar dynamic of government

Coward, you are really really seeing things to simple when saying “..if you are anti-capitalist then you ARE SOCIALIST.”.
This is utter nonsense. There is no “oposite” of a flawed form of society. This is not “East-West” polarity.
Take one thing for granted: The corporation in our world are OWNED by ruthless sick people – called “capitalists” for the type of power they use to enslave consumers.
One thing must be clear: There is NOTHING GOOD coming out of “quantity”.
Capital is only a quantity. How can a lot of money mean anything good. This would depend on the way it was earned, right?
Capitalism is monster invented by ignorant money bags.
And there is no OPPOSITE of this. There is a clear conclusion: Politics has to limit the power of capital. Governments ONLY have to do this.
They have to defend all other values. Even YOUR life.

Median Wilfred says:

Useless surveillance, so why do it?

I’ll certainly buy that most or all dragnet surveillance is useless – in the context of finding terrorists, of which there aren’t very many.

That leads me to asking why do dragnet surveillance at all? It’s expensive, it takes headcount, it risks exposing NSA to the existential threat of mild criticism.

I don’t even see a lot of “second order effects”, unless you count Russ Feingold and Mark Udall not getting re-elected. So, why do the surveillance? Are some folks getting subtly rich off the stock market, like someone did from the 1953 UFC-motivated coup in Venezuala? That’s kind of a bullshit reason to surveill everyone. Is the NSA really just full of punks and voyeurs? WTF?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Useless surveillance, so why do it?

The purpose of this surveillance is not to prevent. It is meant to be a stockpiled arsenal to be used to against enemies of ALL CLASSES!

Stuff like this can be used to corrupt politicians and blackmail them.
Stuff like this can be used to put away any civilian they decide they do not like for whatever reason the Magic 8 ball presented this morning.
Stuff like this can be used to create a silent coup within the very halls of congress and we might never know it!
Stuff like this can be used to foment public adoration by targeting viable citizens so that they can essentially “breed them into a nasty terrorist” and then arrest them. No different from IT staff intentionally breaking a printer to make it look like they are needed!

The voyeurism is just a positive side effect and helps to keep the data gathers happy by keeping them distracted from the insanely destructive machine they are helping to build.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Useless surveillance, so why do it?

why do dragnet surveillance at all?

Because it has a sever chilling effect on people organising themselves to do something about a corrupt government. It therefore helps keep the existing parties entrenched in power, because most people are afraid to enter a serious political discussion, and limit themselves to the my party is good, and the other party is terrible type og political discussion..

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Useless surveillance, so why do it?

Except that people are organizing themselves all the time. Or wishing they’d get organized, or just complaining about it, and real terrorist and revolutionary plotting gets lost in it.

A ninja is stealthiest not wearing black kabuki but looking like every other peasant servant.

The cure for the chilling effect is for more people to ignore it. For more people to discuss hypothetical plots openly. As if they’re writing a script for a movie.

Secret Service fraud
Satellite phones force Salsa
Avalanche garbage

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Snowden Interview

The problem is that people already think they are informed and understand. It’s a persistent Dunning-Kruger effect.

Just look at PaulT and you can catch a glimpse of it.

The world has not, will never be, and cannot be made into a safe place. After you manage to wade through the throngs of idiots and party sycophants you have the actual corrupt bastard standing at the end to try to put you down.

Government is the #1 enemy of mankind, there is no greater threat, other than ignorance. Its institutions have murdered more people than all WAR. It assaults the poor, defends the rich, visits all manor of pestilence & plague upon its citizens, and never relents until it has grown so cancerous that it has to be put down and replaced with a newer but less malignant cancer that will eventually become the same.

The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with blood of patriots and tyrants. The founding fathers made it clear that all governments will become corrupt and that eventually blood will be the requirement to correct course. It is just a fact of life and humanity!

YoYoMom says:

Hayden's reaction after 2 years still applies

Frankly, whether its that blanket immunity for corporation sharing directly with the NSA without anonymity for user data that was tucked into the budget bill last December, the NSA gaining access to mobile call data when we “reformed” the phone surveillance law or look at what the intelligence committee is trying to hand the FBI right – we’re still loosing ground (that doesn’t seem to be ending).

Thankfully the population has access to knowledge of end to end encryption – but the govt still holds the balls to all the companies that make everything and most will do whatever those govts ask – back doors in firmware / compilers anyone?

Hayden’s reaction at 2 years still applies and is rather depressing:

Anonymous Coward says:

Nothings really changed for the better on their side

As was fucking predicted by so many

A a more security orienteated set of programs, hoped for, but not guaranteed………the question is, which ones will rise to the top, how long can they go on, how long can they defend themselves from the inevitable corrupt attacks, and how long will they keep their convictions

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