WASPdom. Snowden is from a respectable middle class family, many of whose
members worked for the government, and he happens to have a gift for
computers and electronic information. Nothing to raise suspicion, and it
was natural for him to work for the CIA, which he did for a time. Thoreau
was a different animal, a “Boston Brahmin,” of the New England aristocracy,
a dominant elite full of independent thinkers of impeccable roots going
back to colonial times. The Adamses, Emerson, Hawthorne, William and Henry
James, Melville, and Oliver Wendell Holmes (who coined the term) were
Snowden held tech jobs, Thoreau went off to live in the woods and think. He
was a theorist, opinionated, lacking finesse. Not a hands-on guy or a
leader in his set, but strong in his views. He wrote Walden, and then he
came up with the notion of civil disobedience, a wild and crazy idea that
when government creates a stench that your conscience can’t abide, it’s
appropriate to be “disobedient,” and if possible, “stop the machine,” by
which he meant the government. The idea had legs, and he became the patron
saint of whistleblowers.
Snowden is a loner, too, like many techs, and very expert on information
systems. He bypassed college degrees but was eminently employable, and
smart enough to be trained by the government as a Certified Ethical
Hacker (CEH), an ambiguous and controversial government qualification. He was
always civil, and became extremely disobedient. In his world he will be remembered
as a heroic practitioner of what Thoreau wrote about in his Boston cocoon,
though also a traitor by traditional definition.
Coming from a responsible family with government connections may have
protected him from close CIA scrutiny and allowed him what must have been a
very high security clearance. He needed to roam freely to solve the
problems he was assigned. With his gifts and background, he would always
find work, and therein lies a tale of corporate complacency. Though his
online views were no secret and should have raised eyebrows, no one paid
attention. Good employee, good manners, good family. Good manners does not
mean no balls, as patriotic barflies tend to think.
After CIA, Snowden ended working for Booz Allen Hamilton, a company rarely
referenced in popular media. Booz Allen are consultants in technology,
defense and intelligence, and a big player ($5-6 billion yearly) in our
increasingly privatized intelligence community. Privatization is a strong
current trend that has spawned a profitable industry, and congress sees it
as a good thing, reducing the size of the government; but privatization has
its problems. There’s Snowden, and there were Halliburton’s electrocution
showers, and Blackwater, which existed in a convenient legal limbo that
allowed them break their own rules. Accountability is vague with these
consulting companies, and no significant heads rolled in these cases.
Privatization can arguably reduce government size, but basically it’s all
about the bottom line, which means bean counters and cost-cutting. There’s
big money in the game, and bean counters are influential. At Booz Allen
they saved money by shortcutting Snowden’s vetting.
Snowden was no trained spy, and didn’t bother to cover his tracks, but this
went unnoticed. Long story short, Booz Allen apparently had no idea who he
was, though he was open about himself and his views on the internet,
including his sexual and donut preferences. Posting as the TheTrueHOOHA
he sounds sophomoric and independent, a classic high end unpredictable
young tech. But he could solve problems others could not, and perhaps
because he’d been accepted by CIA, Booz Allen accepted him and gave him
access to graze in fields of absolutely top secret information, revealing,
among other things, how the government routinely penetrates our private
The media excoriate and extol Snowden, but Booz Allen remains under the
radar, not held accountable, and they continue to get enormous contracts.
Why? They are huge (over five to six billion annual revenue), the
government is their only employer, and they are extremely well connected.
They also kiss the Clinton ring, donating money to the Clinton Global
Initiative, a part of the their Foundation. They also have some very
influential employees: James Woolsey, former CIA Director has worked for
them, as have current National Intelligence Director James Clapper and
similar figures. Like Halliburton and other giant privatizers, they often
work on no-bid contracts. In any case, no heads rolled after Snowden’s
revelations, and it was business as usual.
Private contractors now supply at least half of our specialized troops and
intelligence personnel. This surprising fact becomes comprehensible as part
of the privatization trend, which has significant added value: it blurs
accountability. Blackwater broke the rules they worked under in Iraq,
initiating fire fights and shooting civilians very indiscriminately, and
there were no consequences other than a name change. P. W. Singer
author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry notes that these companies operate in over fifty countries. Their use was implemented quickly because
consultant/contractor status allowed them to do things that would be
illegal for government employees. Singer estimates that in the 1990s there
were 50 military personnel for every 1 contractor; now the ratio is less
than 10 to 1.
Intelligence was on the same path. Robert Grenier, CIA station chief in
Islamabad, Pakistan, and subsequently in charge of the CTC (Counter
Terrorism Center), says that more than half the personnel who worked under
him at CTC were private contractors. “They were coming in, and they were
all over the place," Grenier said, and he was comfortable with it. Tim
Shorrock, who wrote the definitive book, Spies for Hire, obtained and published an
unclassified document from the Office of the Director of National
Intelligence showing that 70 percent of the US intelligence budget was
spent on private contractors. Blackwater and Snowden make it obvious that
legality and accountability are issues that won’t go away, but neither will
they be discussed openly in significant venues, because both employer and
contractor like the status quo, and it’s not difficult to wave the flag and
demonize the messenger in the name of Homeland Security. Silencing and/or
destroying whistleblowers is a routine procedure.
Thoreau was a bit of a crank, but civil disobedience is a powerful idea,
the ethical core that justifies whistleblowers to themselves. They lead a
hellish life once they commit. If they report on security matters, their
employment is made uncomfortable. Legally outgunned by the government, they
often lose their jobs, then friends and family, Finding another job becomes
almost impossible, income declines or disappears, and legal fees mount. It’s a
very slippery slope, and getting your life back is an impossible dream.
The inevitable question about Snowden is whether he did more harm or good.
It’s very doubtful that we’d ever have known about PRISM (and the access to
our phone records, etc.) without him. Obviously he broke the law, but as
Thoreau suggested, civil disobedience is at times a moral obligation. In
his bucolic Walden world he wouldn’t have been concerned with having his
life ripped apart. The Brahmins were very secure.