I don’t want to shock anybody, but governments collect intelligence. Sometimes they collect intelligence even on their allies. The allies themselves know this—after all, they’re doing exactly the same thing. But it’s generally considered nicer to avoid mention of the subject in public. We all know where our dinner comes from, but we don’t necessarily want to tour the slaughterhouse.
Yet on Monday, media around the world recoiled in shock from allegations that the United States engaged in intelligence collection within France and within Mexico. The National Security Agency may even have succeeded in hacking the email account of the president of Mexico. Explanations have been demanded. The journalist-activist Glenn Greenwald tweeted his cackling delight in the harm he and his associate Edward Snowden have done.
And indeed, they have done harm. Let’s assume for a moment that the stories as reported are mostly true. (That could easily prove an unsound assumption, but bear with me.) If so, not only have the diplomatic relations of the United States been damaged, but its intelligence-gathering methods have been gravely compromised. Capabilities will have to be reconstituted. Until such time, if ever, that those capabilities can be reconstituted, leaders of the United States will be deprived of information they had previously relied on for important national security purposes.
What are those purposes? Consider the Mexico case. Mexico is fighting a grim war against drug traffickers. That war has enormous security implications for the United States. Among the questions an American president must wrestle with: are senior figures in the Mexican government, police, or military compromised in any way? Do Mexican officials have undisclosed communications or contacts with the traffickers? How committed are senior Mexican leaders to the fight? The leaders of the Mexican state may not always or reliably share all their knowledge with the United States. They may be ignorant themselves of facts that are important to U.S. security. Is it really seriously suggested that the U.S. not collect this information by any means it can?
When the Snowden controversy erupted, it erupted because Snowden alleged that the NSA collected information on Americans in violation of law. But there is no law restricting U.S. intelligence gathering overseas. Greenwald and Snowden are not speaking out for legality. Snowden is the lawbreaker here, and his law-breaking is now being used to do damage to the United States as an end in itself. This isn’t civil libertarianism taken to extremes. This is the use of publicity as a weapon of sabotage. The analogy isn’t to Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon insider who leaked the Pentagon Papers and then met the government in court. (He won.) The analogy here is to Philip Agee, the ex-CIA officer who published a sensational memoir, revealed the names of names of covert CIA officers, and then defected to Cuba. One of those names was that of Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens. Welch was murdered in December 1975 by a radical leftist faction.
When does whistle-blowing fade into sabotage? It’s no wonder Snowden skulks in Russia. His actions could not be defended in an American court, for one basic reason: they are indefensible.