There are a number of narratives being floated by the usual suspects to attempt to demonstrate that Edward Snowden is a traitor who has betrayed secrets vital to the security of the United States. All the arguments being made are essentially without merit. Snowden has undeniably violated his agreement to protect classified information, which is a crime. But in reality, he has revealed only one actual secret that matters, which is the United States government's serial violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution through its collection of personal information on millions of innocent American citizens without any probable cause or search warrant.
That makes Snowden a whistleblower, as he is exposing illegal activity on the part of the federal government. The damage he has inflicted is not against U.S. national security but rather on the politicians and senior bureaucrats who ordered, managed, condoned, and concealed the illegal activity.
First and foremost among the accusations is the treason claim being advanced by such legal experts as former Vice President Dick Cheney, Speaker of the House John Boehner, and Senator Dianne Feinstein. The critics are saying that Snowden has committed treason because he has revealed U.S. intelligence capabilities to groups like al-Qaeda, with which the United States is at war. Treason is, in fact, the only crime that is specifically named and described in the Constitution, in Article III: "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort."
Whether Washington is actually at war with al-Qaeda is, of course, debatable since there has been no declaration of war by Congress as required by Article I of the Constitution. Congress has, however, passed legislation, including the Authorization for Use of Military Force, empowering the President to employ all necessary force against al-Qaeda and "associated" groups; this is what Cheney and the others are relying on to establish a state of war.
But even accepting the somewhat fast and loose standard for being at war, it is difficult to discern where Snowden has been supporting the al-Qaeda and "associated groups" enemy. Snowden has had no contact with al-Qaeda and he has not provided them with any classified information. Nor has he ever spoken up on their behalf, given them advice, or supported in any way their activities directed against the United States. The fallback argument that Snowden has alerted terrorists to the fact that Washington is able to read their emails and listen in on their phone conversations -- enabling them to change their methods of communication -- is hardly worth considering, as groups like al-Qaeda have long since figured that out. Osama bin Laden, a graduate in engineering, repeatedly warned his followers not to use phones or the Internet, and he himself communicated only using live couriers. His awareness of U.S. technical capabilities was such that he would wear a cowboy hat when out in the courtyard of his villa to make it impossible for him to be identified by hovering drones and surveillance satellites.
Attempts to stretch the treason argument still further by claiming that Snowden has provided classified information to Russia and China are equally wrong-headed, as the U.S. has full and normally friendly diplomatic relations with both Moscow and Beijing. Both are major trading partners. Washington is not at war with either nation and never has been apart from a brief and limited intervention in the Russian Civil War in 1918. Nor is there any evidence that Snowden passed any material directly to either country's government or that he has any connection to their intelligence services.
Then there is the broader "national security" argument. It goes something like this: Washington will no longer be able to spy on enemies and competitors in the world because Snowden has revealed the sources and methods used by the NSA to do so. Everyone will change their methods of communication, and the United States will be both blind and clueless. Well, one might argue that the White House has been clueless for at least 12 years, but the fact is that the technology and techniques employed by NSA are not exactly secret. Any reasonably well educated telecommunications engineer can tell you exactly what is being done, which means the Russians, Chinese, British, Germans, Israelis, and just about everyone else who has an interest is fully aware of what the capabilities of the United States are in a technical sense. This is why they change their diplomatic and military communications codes on a regular basis and why their civilian telecommunications systems have software that detects hacking by organizations like NSA.
Foreign nations also know that what distinguishes the NSA telecommunications interception program is the enormous scale of the dedicated resources in terms of computers and personnel, which permit real time accessing of billions of pieces of information. NSA also benefits from the ability to tie into communications hubs located in the continental United States or that are indirectly accessible, permitting the U.S. government to acquire streams of data directly. The intelligence community is also able to obtain both private data and backdoor access to information through internet, social networking, and computer software companies, the largest of which are American. Anyone interested in more detail on how the NSA operates and what it is capable of should read Jim Bamford's excellent books on the subject.
The NSA's capabilities, though highly classified, have long been known to many in the intelligence community. In 2007, I described the Bush administration's drive to broaden the NSA's activities, noting that...
"The president is clearly seeking open-ended authority to intercept communications without any due process, and he apparently intends to do so in the United States... House Republican leader John Boehner (OH), citing 9/11, has described the White House proposal as a necessary step to 'break down bureaucratic impediments to intelligence collection and analysis.' It is not at all clear how unlimited access to currently protected personal information that is already accessible through an oversight procedure would do that. 'Modernizing' FISA would enable the government to operate without any restraint. Is that what Boehner actually means?"
It was clear to me that, in 2007, Washington already possessed the technical capability to greatly increase its interception of communications networks, but I was wrong in my belief that the government had actually been somewhat restrained by legal and privacy concerns. Operating widely in a permissive extra-legal environment had already started six years before, shortly after 9/11, under the auspices of the Patriot Act and the Authorization for Use of Military Force.
The White House's colossal data-mining operation has now been exposed by Edward Snowden, and the American people have discovered that they have been scrutinized by Washington far beyond any level that they would have imagined possible. Many foreign nations have also now realized that the scope of U.S. spying exceeds any reasonable standard of behavior, so much so that if there are any bombshells remaining in the documents taken by Snowden they would most likely relate to the specific targets of overseas espionage.
Here in the United States, it remains to be seen whether anyone actually cares enough to do something about the illegal activity while being bombarded with the false claims that the out of control surveillance program "has kept us safe." It is interesting to observe in passing that the revelations derived from Snowden's whistleblowing strongly suggest that the hippies and other counter-culture types who, back in the 1960s, protested that the government could not be trusted actually had it right all along.