The Snowden Inevitability

The Snowden Inevitability

The growth of the intelligence-industrial complex has become "the greatest threat to our freedom."

“We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.” Thus spoke President Dwight Eisenhower in January 1961.

Shortly before Dwight Eisenhower became president, machinery was set in motion in the National Security Act in 1947 that would make the creation of an intelligence-industrial complex, and Edward Snowden, virtually inevitable.

Though strongly resisted by the military, the Act created a Central Intelligence Agency as the clearing house for intelligence collection and analysis at the dawn of the Cold War. Thereafter, the diversion of the CIA into covert operations and the explosive growth of communications technology led to the creation of the National Security Agency and other intelligence spin-offs that today encompass a dozen and a half different federal agencies in the intelligence-industrial complex.

Predictably, this complex was too expansive to remain in the hidden-government sector. In part as a result of the Snowden phenomenon, we now know that intelligence analysis, if not also collection, is being outsourced to a murky world of private consulting groups employing hundreds of thousands of people.

Since many of these people require security clearances of some dimension, we now also know that almost a million and a half people inhabiting the intelligence-industrial complex have been granted top-secret security clearances, that is to say access to massive amounts of intelligence information.

The dimensions of the intelligence-industrial complex are staggering. The cost of conducting background investigations for security-clearance purposes alone now exceeds one billion dollars.

Thirty-eight years ago, in the early weeks of my service in the United States Senate, I was appointed to serve on the Senate Select Committee to Investigate the Intelligence Operations of the United States Government, commonly called the Church Committee after its chairman, Frank Church of Idaho. Over almost two years we discovered a sewer of some dimensions underlying the city on a hill.

To prevent excesses such as assassination of foreign leaders, and to fulfill the constitutional oversight responsibilities of the Congress, intelligence-oversight committees in both Houses were created. It is safe to say, however, that even those committees have been unaware of the degree to which the intelligence “community” has privatized and metastasized.

A few months ago a number of trains traveling at high speeds arrived at the same station at the same time. Considered together, the epic train wreck known as Snowden was inevitable. The creation of an increasingly privatized intelligence-industrial complex, the opening of state secrets to high-tech novices (some might say geeks), the massive collection and storage capacity of “mega-data” (phone calls, emails, internet searches) by modern technology, and the sense on the part of at least a small number of these privately-employed novices that the public should know what is going on, all combined to give us…Edward Snowden.

The Edward Snowdens and Bradley Mannings of the world are one issue. Edward Snowden as sand in the gears of an already troubled U.S.-Russian relationship is yet another. It is an issue of seriously troubling dimensions. The train wreck that is the intelligence-industrial complex has now blown up into a serious diplomatic and political problem for the United States.

As a member of a small group that visited Moscow recently under the auspices of the Center for the National Interest, I came away with the distinct impression that Edward Snowden was seen as a nuisance by serious Russian leaders but a potential hand grenade in a Russian domestic politics that is becoming increasingly anti-American. If one were to guess, and presently it is a pure guess, the Snowden affair got caught up in Russian politics, and hardline elements succeeded in making it a test of the Russian government’s willingness to resist U.S. diplomatic pressure.

Edward Snowden is the symptom of a serious latent disease in American society, a disease having to do with the erosion of privacy, the sacrifice of privacy for perceived security, and the growth of an intelligence-industrial complex that is basically out of control by Congress or the American people. That is one set of problems and a serious one.

But for those of us who believe the U.S.-Russian relationship is too serious and too important for long-range American interests to be sacrificed to hardliners on both sides using Snowden as a symbol for pursuing their own narrow ideological agendas, it is a problem of potentially historic importance.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry would be well advised to conduct very high-level discussions with Russian officials using back channels to get Edward Snowden off the important bilateral agenda and into a minor nuisance category which he deserves.

Eventually Edward Snowden will become one of those footnotes of history interesting to history scholars only and possibly amusing to others. But to permit him to become a barrier to serious diplomacy and important bilateral U.S.-Russian relations would be a serious tragedy. Senior officials on both sides are required now to restore perspective and a sense of proportion and remove Edward Snowden from our ongoing agendas.

And here at home, while others are getting our diplomacy back on track, we would do well to have a serious national discussion beyond the halls of Congress about the future of the intelligence-industrial complex and what it represents to a twenty-first-century mass democracy based on constitutional principles and guarantees.

It is not excessive to believe this growing, gargantuan, secret complex now represents the greatest threat to our freedom in the new twenty-first century.

Gary Hart, United States Senator (ret.) and former member of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate the Intelligence Operations of the United States Government.

Image: Flickr/Corey Burger. CC BY-SA 2.0.