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The real threat to national security is our own egregious activities in war zones.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others are launching a campaign this week to get President Obama to pardon Edward Snowden for his 2013 whistle-blowing on the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.
There is no question that Obama should pardon Snowden. He should do it because Snowden’s whistle-blowing on NSA activities was a public service in two ways: It revealed the NSA’s domestic spying, and it showed U.S. citizens how their tax dollars are being spent in overseas wars — without giving away much our adversaries didn’t already know.
Then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, noted in 2014 that “the vast majority of the documents … had nothing to do with exposing government oversight of domestic activities,” but rather “were related to our military capabilities, operations, tactics, techniques and procedures.” Dempsey claimed that it would “cost billions of dollars to overcome the loss of security that has been imposed on us.”
Military secrets, and not domestic spying, are what the Joint Chiefs found so egregious about Snowden’s leak. And this is where the argument made by Dempsey and Washington’s anti-transparency crowd (including Obama, who has used the Espionage Act to shut down whistle-blowers more than any previous president) has little merit.
As a senior adviser on foreign policy to Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., I learned that with few exceptions, America’s adversaries are well aware of our military capabilities, tactics and techniques. Snowden’s release of information didn’t give our opponents new ammunition. To assume so, as Dempsey implies, is to underestimate our adversaries’ intelligence. That’s something we’ve been doing for decades, and it’s one of the many reasons our foreign policy strategies keep failing. This was not an “aha” moment for any non-state actor using violence against American assets, domestic or foreign.
One such example can be seen in WikiLeaks. Three years before Snowden’s big data dump, WikiLeaks released the Collateral Murder video, which gruesomely shows how U.S. forces gunned down civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters employees. At that time, one of my colleagues felt strongly that this video release posed a serious threat to our national security.
WikiLeaks was in the wrong, in his view, not the Apache helicopter gunmen and their stunningly callous reaction to the moment. (“Look at those dead bastards,” one says. “Nice,” says another). While my colleague’s perspective is not atypical of Washington’s security establishment, the assumption that our adversaries would see this video as fresh ammunition in the fight against America is deeply naive.
Opponents of our militarized foreign policy know exactly what’s happening on the ground and in countries we’ve invaded. Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula or Houthis in Yemen, for example, know all too well that the U.S. is supporting devastating military attacks that have decimated hospitals and killed innocents. No leaked video footage would increase American insecurity. The damage is done in the deed. Not the retelling of it.
The only way a video like Collateral Murder could possibly pose a threat to our national security is by turning good Americans against their government because they don’t want their tax dollars being used to ruthlessly kill countless civilians or collude with violent autocrats in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Pakistan and more. All of this is happening with little outrage. Rather than admitting our own amorality, it’s easier to shun the messenger.
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The same goes with Snowden’s intelligence dump. Our adversaries are quite clear-eyed about our tactics in the war zone. In fact, few of these leaks present new information in the general sense. Site specifics, yes. Overall trends, no. And anyone who wants to weigh in on Snowden’s pardon process must acknowledge that.
Those who wish to do harm to America already know that our Defense and State departments weaponize, finance and train violent governments and non-state actors yet look the other way when those same U.S.-supported warlords, rebels, dictators and autocrats engage in indiscriminate killing, maiming, trafficking and displacement of their people.
Our covert tactics are not new. We’ve been employing them for decades, directly and indirectly, in all of the aforementioned countries. It is these actual U.S.-led operations — not the Snowden data dump that elucidates how these procedures were, in the end, employed or deployed — that are the real threat to national security.
The Snowdens of this world are simply reflecting back to American taxpayers what’s happening with their hard-earned money. Someone needs to do it because the public won’t hear about it from the presiding administration, from most members of Congress or even the mainstream news media. They’re all busy selling whatever war Washington is waging.
So when the White House says Snowden “should come home to the United States, and be judged by a jury of his peers, not hide behind the cover of an authoritarian regime,” let’s make sure that what stands trial is the policies, not the messenger.
Michael Shank teaches at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. He has worked on the ground in the Middle East, Horn of Africa, Central and South Asia and Southeast Asia. Between 2009 and 2013, he served as a senior adviser on foreign policy in Congress. Follow him on Twitter: @Michael_Shank