A week that began with Memorial Day is ending with questions about whether Americans still deserve our freedom. It was almost refreshing to hear an angry Secretary of State John Kerry use undiplomatic words like “fugitive” to describe Edward Snowden, even challenging him to “man up and come back to the United States.”
With the Ukraine exploding into civil war, his frustration is understandable because there was Comrade Edward, just as cool as you please, exchanging pleasantries with Brian Williams. While the NBC cameras rolled in a posh Moscow hotel room, Snowden’s KGB handlers were nowhere in sight–but must have laughed themselves silly behind the curtains.
After heavy hyping, NBC aired the interview during a whole hour of prime time programming as if American journalism had no interest except to give a traitor uninterrupted–and largely unchallenged–access to the folks back home. Like the proverbial talking dog, this occasion was not especially remarkable for what was said–but that it happened at all. As has become customary, other media outlets missed the point entirely. The dependably wretched New York Times covered it in a cultural arts beat blog that began, “I miss Barbara Walters already” while the Baltimore Sun gushed that the Snowden interview was the best journalism by NBC “in a long, long time.” Nothing at all about the decency of the thing.
Keep in mind that Mr. Snowden stands accused of espionage–and not because he betrayed a transient fact like the identity of the CIA station chief in Afghanistan. Any witless White House staffer could have done that.
Instead, Mr. Snowden released massive amounts of classified documents, to the unabashed delight of media outlets like the Washington Post, counting its Pulitzers even while pitching in to advance Snowden’s conspiracy. From Bob Woodward to David Sanger, our journalistic elites have made lucrative careers by converting American secrets into book profits, stuffing themselves like IRS bureaucrats at a conference buffet.
The result of the Snowden affair, in the language of intelligence, was a landmark compromise of “sources and methods,” i.e., the tactics, techniques, and procedures used by American intelligence officers to maintain an edge over our adversaries. What adversaries, you ask? How about Chinese cyber-thieves intent on looting American trade secrets, terrorists like the Tsarnaev brothers anxious to do us harm or maybe Iranian mullahs equally determined to surpass Hitler’s Holocaust with nuclear weapons. If you agree that these are just the sorts of enemies that our intelligence services should protect us against, then you are probably unlikely to buy the classic non-question endlessly posed by the press: Edward Snowden, patriot or traitor?
My experience suggests a swift, unambiguous answer. As a Cold War intelligence officer, often running counter-espionage operations, I learned that traitors have an almost pathological self-regard, constantly manipulating family, friends, colleagues, and sometimes even their Soviet case officers (sensible professionals who naturally counseled caution). It is one of the odd continuities of our Brave New World that patriotism is still the last refuge of scoundrels. The difference now is that the scoundrels can get away with crimes against national security by claiming, as Mr. Snowden did again on NBC with prim self-assurance, that his real motivation was protecting our liberties. So have our inspectors general in each intelligence agency been sequestered? Or have the select committees in both houses of Congress charged with over-watch disappeared? Exactly why did Mr. Snowden believe he had no alternative except to blow his whistle in China and then Moscow? And did this alleged intelligence professional ever give any thought to the long historical relationship between blowing secrets and losing wars?
Over the Memorial Day weekend, I had the privilege of attending the Houston world premiere of “D-Day Normandy, 1944.” Released in time for the 70th anniversary of that invasion, the 3D film is narrated, somewhat ironically, by Tom Brokaw, Mr. William’s predecessor at NBC News. Stunning computer and cinematic technologies re-create the geography, military strategies and personal vignettes underlying the Overlord Operation for younger generations largely unacquainted with those events. Its core teaching: world history was changed by the outcome of that desperate fight for the Normandy beaches. But that battle was decided in turn by one vital fact–Allied intelligence, secrecy and deception out-performed Hitler’s war machine. But only narrowly and even then at great human cost.
Such is the enduring legacy of The Greatest Generation and a lesson the Not-So-Great Generation should apply to Edward Snowden and those who glory in his infamy.
Colonel (Ret.) Kenneth Allard, a widely-known author on national security issues, was formerly Dean of the National War College and a military analyst for NBC News.