Susan Rice's Snowden Blunder

July 3, 2013 Topic: IntelligenceSecurity Region: United States

Susan Rice's Snowden Blunder

A statement suggests a mistaken view of the leaker's impact; it could also make trying him harder.

Former United Nations ambassador Susan Rice started her new job as national-security adviser this week. Questions about Rice’s honesty when serving as UN ambassador, focusing on her role in explaining the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, occasioned spirited public and congressional debate. Although appointment as national-security adviser is not subject to congressional approval, credibility is essential to the effective discharge of that position. Yet Rice’s recent assertions regarding the impact of Edward Snowden’s unauthorized disclosures of highly classified national-security information—and her failure to correct these remarks—present new questions about her judgment and fitness for her new post.

In an AP interview on June 29, Rice dismissed claims that Edward Snowden’s disclosure of highly classified national-security programs damaged U.S. diplomatic interests or the standing of President Obama: “I don't think the diplomatic consequences, at least as they are foreseeable now, are that significant . . . I think the Snowden thing is obviously something that we will get through, as we've gotten through all the issues like this in the past.” While the harm to President Obama’s political standing attributable to Snowden’s disclosures is debatable, the serious injury to the defense, national security and diplomatic interests of the United States is beyond dispute.

Snowden is much more than a "twenty-nine-year-old [sic] hacker." Given the unparalleled nature of his disclosures, Rice's statement that Snowden's conduct is equivalent to “all the issues like this in the past” is demonstrably false. Rice’s apparent effort to minimize the harm caused by Snowden’s criminal misconduct is at odds with the public record and reflects a strain of denialism that raises questions about her capacity to elevate national-security policy above short-term political convenience. Her assessments not only openly conflict with statements by other administration officials about the nature and impact of Snowden’s misconduct, they threaten to undermine the ability of the United States to fully hold Snowden legally accountable for his gross criminal misconduct.

Some contend—with no obvious sarcasm—that Snowden’s conduct has not damaged the national security or defense of the United States. But disclosure of these programs unarguably compromised intelligence sources and methods and alerted the enemy to their existence. The public now knows that these programs thwarted several terrorist attacks against American and overseas targets; terrorists now know how to better conceal their intentions from U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement authorities. Moreover, assertions that Snowden has not caused serious injury to the defense of the United States are contradicted by current and former senior Pentagon and intelligence officials, including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA directors Michael Hayden and James Woolsey, and former attorney general Michael Mukasey. Threats of legal action against technology firms alleged to have complied with lawful metadata requests are likely to chill future cooperation, all to the detriment of the defense of the United States.

The conduct and statements of foreign governments in the wake of these disclosures further belie Rice’s claims that Snowden has not significantly damaged U.S. diplomatic interests. Since Snowden’s leaks of classified information were first published, China and Russia have determined that it is in their national interest not to facilitate his extradition. During this intervening period, Snowden has disclosed information concerning alleged intelligence operations against computer networks in the People’s Republic of China, alleged monitoring of Russian government offices and personnel, and purported efforts to intercept communications at diplomatic missions of the European Union and friendly governments.

Revelations concerning alleged U.S. cyber operations in the PRC occurred while Mr. Snowden remained in Hong Kong and overshadowed a June 10–11 U.S.-China summit meeting at which President Obama protested China-sponsored, cyber-enabled theft of U.S. intellectual property and private data crucial to U.S. economic competitiveness. Russia has attempted to exploit disclosures to undermine the diplomatic standing of the United States and continues to harbor him.

According to the New York Times, the diplomatic fallout from Snowden's disclosures has “hurt President Obama's standing in Europe” and raised “basic questions of trust among nations that have been on friendly terms for generations.” European Union president Martin Schulz demanded a formal explanation of alleged activities and claimed the United States was treating the EU as “an enemy.” France threatened to halt trade talks considered vital to U.S. economic interests. The U.S. ambassador was summoned by the German foreign ministry to explain new disclosures in a prominent German newspaper, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to directly express her concern to President Obama. Secretary of State Kerry spent most of Monday attempting to calm skeptical European governments while President Obama reassured allies.

How any public official, particularly the individual now serving as national-security adviser, can blithely dismiss and continue to ignore the far-reaching national security and diplomatic repercussions of “the Snowden thing” defies credulity. Furthermore, trivializing the extent of Snowden’s injury to the United States may undermine the ability of federal prosecutors to effectively present their case against Snowden on behalf of the country he has betrayed.

Snowden’s advocates claim he was informed by altruism and had no reasonable belief that unauthorized disclosures could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation. If he stands trial for his actions, the injury to the United States and the degree to which it could reasonably have been foreseen will comprise the gravamen of the government's case against him under a key national-security statute. As a result, official comments crafted to downplay the political repercussions of Snowden’s disclosures will be seized upon by Snowden’s defense team at any future trial. This alone should be sufficient to compel government officials, including Rice, to speak with clarity and objectivity about the serious injury Snowden’s disclosures have caused to the national security and defense of the United States.

Rice has been on the job for a few days. She is not off to a good start. Rice can help restore trust in her judgment and affirm respect for the position she now holds by correcting her recent comments about “the Snowden thing.” In the days and weeks to come, she and other public officials must resist short-term political pressure to minimize the serious harm attributable to the illegal disclosures. Instead, they must speak clearly and candidly about the harm Snowden has caused. If they do not, they may negate a vital deterrent against unauthorized disclosures of national-security information and deprive the American people the justice we deserve in the Snowden case.

Robert N. Tracci served as counsel, chief legislative counsel and parliamentarian to the House Judiciary Committee from 2000-2006, deputy assistant attorney general, U.S. Department of Justice from 2007-2008, and special assistant United States attorney, U.S. Department of Justice from 2009-2012.