The spy who wasn’t

NSA defector, Edward Snowden, has taken to the airwaves to assure us that he was not, in fact, a low-level computer analyst working for a defense contractor but a Real Under Cover Spy. Hearing his outburst of hubris took me back to the security briefings I sat through when I, too, held the same level of security clearance he did. One thing we were warned to watch for in our co-workers was an exaggerated sense of importance because such people were prone to leak classified information to aggrandize themselves. But that aside, was Snowden really a spy?

The short answer is: not really. Spies in the classic George Smiley mold are few and far between—and those of the James Bond sort exist only in fiction. The vast majority of US intelligence—more than 90% depending upon who you ask—comes from SIGINT, Signals Intelligence, what NSA does. And the vast majority of SIGINT is collected by rather open means: satellites, aircraft, ground stations, ships, and submarines. I say that these are open means because, although the details are classified, the existence of those collection systems is well known, especially by those targeted by them. And it is no secret that there are covert collection sites as well in places such as embassies, consulates, and other installations. The people who service those sites often operate under cover, i.e. they pose as employees of other government agencies or of front companies. As often as not, this is so that the host country can plausibly deny knowing what is going on. What has been made public of Snowden’s work history strongly suggests that he was among those. In other words, he was a low-level computer analyst who happened to be working undercover. His efforts to burnish his importance does not change the fact that he is a traitor who did serious—in some cases irreparable—damage to the country he was supposed to be serving. And the media outlets granting him a soapbox from which to make his exaggerated claims are doing the public a disservice.

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