By Gene Poteat

With thieving intelligence neophytes like Pvt. Manning and Mr. Snowden, the spillage of secrets underscores the risks of handing too much access, too quickly, to those who have high tech skills but not the slightest understanding of the world in which they live.

They are often clueless of its history, heritage, dangers, threats and the positive  and negative  role computers can play in our national security and safety. And they were devoid of social competence, any tutoring in history, maturity and wisdom. Too often these young computer geeks are encouraged by the media to see themselves as heroes, and they lap up the attention, at any cost, even if it includes stealing classified secrets to keep the praise flowing. Journalists and WikiLeaks recruiters  like foreign intelligence spotters  know how to work those ego levers to keep the secrets coming.

Manning and Snowden are not dissimilar from previous leakers and malcontents: arrogant and unstable, simmering with grudges and grievances, exactly the sort, with top-secret clearances, foreign intelligence agencies hunger to locate and recruit. For that reason, these traitors should never have been given clearances if our personality assessment tests were accurate. These incidents strongly call into question the intelligence community’s vetting process.

Unfortunately, those government elders charged with managing intelligence collection have the requisite maturity, education and real world experience, but limited computer knowledge, end up hiring the Snowdens without realizing that vacuous, immature, high school wash-outs like this can compromise, in seconds, sophisticated billion-dollar classified programs; programs that took decades of planning, review, approvals, and cautious implementation. Billions of dollars are wiped out when an ignorant rube with a single USB thumb-drive hands it to reporters, WikiLeaks, or other spies. For this alone, those bosses and recruiters share the blame for Snowden’s traitorous activity and quick defection to China, then Russia.

What is it that NSA does that has citizens, including the Congress, riled-up, clamoring to rein them in? But what NSA does not do is listen to our phone conversations — nor examine all that mindless Internet chatter on emails, Skype, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, blogs and webpages. Nothing could be more useless. But NSA does search for terrorists by collecting telephone dialing information; numbers, dates, time and duration of calls between people in the U.S. and people already under investigation or suspicion as possible terrorists, both here and abroad. It also does similar collation with emails, voice, data and website visits.

This monitoring helps NSA determine where the plotters and adversaries are located, what they are planning, when they might seek to advance from Internet boasts and posturing and move towards action, with whom, where, and with what kinds of weapons. They have a job far beyond human capability; indeed, NSA sorts through yottabytes of metadata. If the computers find a pattern indicative of a call between a terrorist in Pakistan planning an attack on the U.S. or an ally, the NSA and FBI zero in to further assess the conversation — all legal and warranted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA). At least 14 federal judges have approved the NSA’s acquisition of metadata every 90 days since 2006 under the provision of the FISA. The court’s order imposes strict limitations to insure the data are used only for counterterrorism analysis (and not political opposition research, peeking at entertainment figures, spouses, sports figures, or others).

Everyone has something to hide. Perhaps it is a child struggling with drugs, a predilection for online pornography, adulterous affairs, financial shenanigans, payoffs, gambling, undisclosed medical conditions, bankruptcies, personal or financial misrepresentations, acts of revenge, fraud, secrets being sent to a journalist chum, insider trading … the list goes on. But should we sacrifice the safety of a nation to protect these aspects of our being human? Certainly not. The outcry of fear at the revelation of NSA’s surveillance, claiming it’s a violation of personal freedom, makes me suspect many of these concerns have little to do with Fourth Amendment rights, and all to do with fear of embarrassment of exposure of one or more of the items listed above. Our Congress has oversight of the intelligence community and its activities, and despite their own foibles and occasional exposed secrets of corruption, hidden campaign donors and sexting, it has continued to approve the NSA program. Why? Because it recognizes — as should we all — metadata analysis in an age of terrorism trumps all personal embarrassments and concerns.

The historical underpinnings of national surveillance

Monitoring communications is as old as communications itself and has always brought out those libertarians who believe their privacy is more important than our nation’s security. Yes we are now being monitored; not by the government, but by our credit card companies, banks, retail stores and our Internet providers. What they learn about us is sold and traded to others, every second we’re online, to target us with ads, promotions, or to limit our insurance policies or job prospects. Conduct a Google search, and up pops advertisements based on recent searches featuring ads suggesting other products. And it is based on data far more intrusive and permanent than that collected by NSA to counter terrorists. Those tracking cookies, in the thousands, secretly installed on your computer by those browsers are paid for because they underwrite all the free search engines and websites most of us frequent. And, yes, all swear they keep our personal information secure.

Surveillance by the U.S. government, in far less detail, is done because such data means life or death in war, getting it to those needing it in a timely manner. Samuel Morse’s electric telegraph, and later Marconi’s wireless, solved the problem by giving birth not only to rapid, long distance communications, but it also spawned intercept techniques, coding and code-breaking, all crucial in war. And just as quickly adversaries targeted the telegraph, tapping into the lines, injecting false messages.

President Lincoln, with his keen interest in new technologies, used the telegraph extensively to communicate with his generals. Lincoln gave Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sweeping powers, including control and monitoring of all telegraph lines, control of the press through censorship, establishment of a secret police and extrajudicial arrests of reporters. Lincoln’s sweeping wartime powers over telegraph communications went unquestioned. As the war ended, so did the communications surveillance and monitoring. And so it will happen when the war against terrorism comes to an end.

After the Great War  “the war to end all wars”  America’s mood was peace and disarmament and our politicians were convinced future wars could be avoided by good faith arms limitations negotiations among the major competing sea powers, England, Japan and the U.S. When it was discovered that the American State Department had cheated by intercepting and decoding the Japanese communications to determine their negotiating position, Secretary of State Henry Stimson made his now infamous statement, “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail,” and closed down the State Department’s intercept and code-breaking operation. Congress went further, passing the Communications Act of 1934, making it illegal to intercept and decode communications of anyone, including an enemy, placing our nation’s future security and safety in jeopardy. Naive souls have existed in our Congress in the past.

Fortunately, our Army and Navy code-breakers were more realistic. They continued to master the art of intercepts and code-breaking — in time to save our nation in WWII by breaking the Japanese codes that lead to victory over a superior Japanese fleet in the Battle of Midway, turning the tide of war against the enemy. Because of this surveillance advantage  in this case a cryptologic one  a handful of American ships devastated the Japanese fleet and changed the balance of power in the Pacific, permanently. WWII easily could have been lost had we not intercepted and broken German and Japanese codes. The Cold War never became hot because intelligence collections by both sides led to Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), keeping the lid on a simmering cauldron.

Monitoring of enemy communications is a necessity. The attacks of 9/11 may have seemed a mere TV special, already forgotten; and other than a few pressure-cooker bombings, many think the war on terror is over or was not a real war. Worse, 70 percent of Americans have been deliberately misinformed by the press (seeking to cover their own sniffing for secrets) into believing the government is using its surveillance operations for purposes other than fighting terrorism. While Congress recently lost a vote to defund NSA’s collection of phone records by a vote of only 205 to 217, it was the closest since 9/11. Nothing would make terrorists (and journalists) happier than seeing such a program defunded. Fortunately, in his recent press conference, the president made it emphatically clear that NSA would continue its surveillance, but vaguely added that he would look into what could be done to keep the public better informed.

Snowden stole information not to expose the program to American voters (why then flee to China and Russia?) to strengthen our democracy or to right a wrong, but with the aim of grandstanding, attention-seeking and to weaken critical intelligence capabilities. Snowden’s stolen files have now made it easier for China and Russia to protect their communications from NSA surveillance, and has instructed terrorists how to cloak their communications as they plot future attacks against the U.S. and our allies. When the next attack occurs, let’s see if the press properly credits Snowden, Manning and these other beloved sources, for all those generous insights that hobbled U.S. national security programs.

Gene Poteat is an electrical engineer (The Citadel) and a retired CIA scientific intelligence officer. He served abroad in London, Scandinavia, the Middle East and Asia. He is president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO), writes and lectures on intelligence matters and teaches at the Washington-based Institute of World Politics graduate school from which he recently received an honorary doctoral degree. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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