Suppose Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden Were Crooks?

By Stephen Bryen

Neither Bradley Manning nor Edward Snowden are crooks in the sense of stealing information for personal profit.  Instead they seem to have been ideologically motivated. Both of them lived “inside” a system that was handling classified and highly secret information. In the case of Manning, he had access to tons of diplomatic cables, military communications, and operational information.  In the case of Snowden, he had access to security policies, practices, and the ability to use the system to exploit information collected by the NSA.

Both of these gentlemen are in heaps of trouble.  Manning’s sentencing hearing has started and, it is likely, the judges will reach a decision by the end of August or early September.  Snowden, on the other hand, has been granted asylum in Russia, so he is (for now) safe from prosecution.  How long the Russians will protect him depends, among other things, on how cooperative he is with Russia’s security authorities and how useful he is to Russia’s interests.  He could easily be traded back to the United States perhaps in exchange for an important Russian asset in the United States.

The most obvious trade is the case of Victor Anatolyevich Bout, a Russian arms dealer who was arrested in Thailand, extradited to the United States, and sentenced in Federal court  to 25 years imprisonment for conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and officials, deliver anti-aircraft missiles and provide aid to a terrorist organization.   The Russians would dearly like to have him back, and they have so-far unsuccessfully pitched their case at very high levels of the U.S. government.  Now they have the possibility of a trade, particularly if Snowden is foolish enough to violate the terms of his asylum agreement with the Russian authorities.

Regardless of Snowden’s ultimate fate, the more interesting question is whether others in a similar position, could make use of NSA intercepted information for profit.

It is now clear that a good deal of NSA’s interceptor work is outsourced.  This means that the chain of custody is weaker than it should be, as it relies on whatever security is provided by NSA’s contractors.  Contractors have an economic incentive not to find problems, since exposing a security breach might backfire and result in the loss of financially important contracts.  Furthermore, even if the contractor might want to try and enforce the “rules” (whatever they are), there are two further problems: (1) enforcement takes resources, and supervision resources are costly and lower profitability; (2) private companies don’t have extensive links to law enforcement, as a government agency would have; they do not have Inspector Generals and counterintelligence capabilities, as a government agency would have; and they certainly don’t welcome extensive security reviews and oversight by law enforcement, counterintelligence, inspector’s generals, or anyone else “from the government.”  Contractors want their sponsors to be happy, to give them high performance ratings, and to trust them. Remember that Snowden worked for Booz Allen, not for the government directly.  And while Booz Allen is a well-regarded company with very high standards, Snowden was able to take advantage of the Booz Allen work environment and do heavy damage to NSA and the U.S. government.

Much of the focus of attention these days in on the scope of NSA’s activities and the rights of Americans –-certainly consequential issues that need airing.  No one wants to live in a police state, even if it might be a well-intentioned police state.

But structural issues also need to be addressed.  The “system” that we have right now is fraught with danger, and it is not just danger to our national security.  It offers an opportunity to crooks of all kinds to steal information and sell to the highest bidder, whether the buyer is a criminal activity itself, a foreign country, or to an industry or organization trying to nail a competitor.

One can argue that if there is a Bradley Manning and an Edward Snowden, it is almost certain there are plenty of criminals making a living on the NSA.

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