The other side of the Snowden story

What Did Edward Snowden Get Wrong? Everything | RAND:

Incidents like the Snowden affair put my former colleagues in the intelligence community in an impossible position. Yes, the official explanations about the virtues of data-collection efforts can sound self-justifying and vague. But they’re still right. I know firsthand that Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, is telling the truth when he talks about plots that have been preempted and attacks that have been foiled because of intelligence his agency collected. I know because I was on the inside, I have long held security clearances, and I participated in many of the activities he describes.



This site looks really good, but I am not signing up yet.

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I am famously promiscuous signing up with new services just so I can ‘know what’s going on’, but when the first thing I have to do is to give this site my account and password for a credit card that I use, I stop and take a breath.

Who are these guys? Fred Wilson, a highly reputable VC blogger is the one who recommended it in his blog. Maybe he’s an investor? I don’t know. But for now, I am holding off.


Like many, I don’t know yet whether I support or condemn the Wikileaks action that has been discussed and debated at length on all fora. You have to agree that it has yielded some interesting insights about the way the world works.

First of all: as far as a diplomat making snide comments about one world leader or another, big deal! I mean it’s embarrassing (like someone hacking your email account or finding your personal diary) but certainly no one is surprised — gossiping and show boating is human nature, yes?

A friend of mine who has been in the foreign service for a long time read the cables with gusto and said if nothing else, it shows that the US foreign service officials are smart and thoughtful and do an impressive and important job.

From that perspective he feels pride that the work that he’s done in obscurity for years finally gets seen by his friends and colleagues who can now appreciate it for what it is.

Here are some more serious questions that occur to me:

  • If it is illegal for Wikileaks to publish cables that they received (from essentially a whistleblower in the Defense department) then why is it not equally illegal for the New York Times to publish them? Is it because the NYT is ‘more reasonable’ and will more likely do what the government wants them to do?
  • Think about having a thumb drive with 500,000 documents on it. What do you do with it? What’s the point of making it available, even to someone with a ‘need to know’? How do you make sense of it. Talk about trying to find a needle in a haystack. Chances are good that you won’t. It brings up the importance of tools and systems to process, classify, summarize and in general make sense of it.
  • This leak appears to have been the work of a lone whistleblower. How is it even possible that a single person has access to such a huge collection of documents? Given the size of thumb drives (I just bought a 16Gig drive for under $30) keeping them from moving in and out of secure buildings is impossible. So the problem is access to the data, and ability to ‘export it’ at all.

Some final links if you are still with me. Look at this very interesting summary article in the New York Times, which comments on one of the questions I raise above:

“Mr. Packer is very much against the prosecution of WikiLeaks on grounds of treason because, he said, “discerning the legal difference between what WikiLeaks did and what news organizations do is difficult and would set a terrible precedent.” (from The New York Times)

Look at this interesting post by David Weinberger, commenting on a fantastic article by Jeremy Wagstaff, who says:

“No, the problem that WikiLeaks unearths is that the most powerful nation on earth doesn’t seem to have any better way of working with all this information than anyone else. Each cable has some header material—who it’s intended for, who it’s by, and when it was written. Then there’s a line called TAGS, which, in true U.S. bureaucratic style doesn’t actually mean tags but “Traffic Analysis by Geography and Subject”—astate department system to organize and manage the cables. Many are two letter country or regional tags—US, AF, PK etc—while others are four letter subject tags—from AADP for Automated Data Processing to PREL for external political relations, or SMIG for immigration related terms.” (from Jeremy Wagstaff: Data, Wikileaks and War“)

You see, this Wikileaks question raises some important and tricky questions, and they are not all about who called who by what name.