04 August 2013

Canary Row

Of late, there have been substantial arguments — some in good faith, some… not so much — about whether Private Manning and Mr Snowden were "whistleblowers." I don't think they were; they were, instead, canaries in the military-intelligence complex coal mine. The critical question is what dangerous condition their songs signal.1

There are two reasons that I do not think of Manning and Snowden in particular as whistleblowers… and one overriding imperative that says that they're something else. First, their data-gathering was far too incidental, far too broad-based, far too indiscriminate; both walked away with data dumps, not careful gathering of evidence concerning a particular hidden ill. Second, both of them were working with and around data that they weren't supposed to have in the first place. A whistleblower is an otherwise-authorized person whose ethics are inconsistent with what they encounter. Manning was at most a file clerk, and shouldn't have been mucking around in State Department materials in the first place; Snowden, as a low-level analyst at a contractor, never should have been granted access to policy documents. But more importantly, neither Manning nor Snowden really revealed much of anything that wasn't already known and accepted outside of their respective "employers"; all they did was provide some confirmation on the basis of official documents.

That said, they each demonstrated that there's a helluva lot of carbon monoxide in the military-intelligence complex coal mine. Manning demonstrates that the military does an execrebly poor job of handling the "need to know" part of managing sensitive information; Snowden demonstrates that civilian contractors are, if anything, worse.2 In particular, nobody at the contractor employing Snowden had a need to know about the rationales used to gather the data — and especially not a low-level analyst.

The real problem is that there have been no apparent steps taken to prevent recurrence of the Manning/Snowden situations (or worse, involving actual operational data). I really don't expect much, if any, effort to change inside the military, particularly at overseas stations; the nonmilitary departments have gotten so used to DoD "management" of their information systems (not just the electronic ones, either) since the fall of Saigon that I expect there are at least a dozen Manning-type situations a year. Former colleagues of mine have indicated that Snowden's employer got/is getting a slap on the wrist, but that other outside contractors have picked up/will pick up the slack. What this says about the wisdom of outsourcing intelligence activities is left as an exercise for the student — or, perhaps, someone who thinks that the underappreciated Rubicon was all too credible.

In the end, I think Manning and Snowden are just canaries signaling much deeper, more-disturbing problems. The question is not what we do with these canaries; it's what we do with the miners and the mine.

  1. I know full well that miners were made aware of gas buildups when the canaries stopped singing. Just invert your ears; that's actually a rather good analogy for what was going on anyway.
  2. They also demonstrate the idiocy of overclassification, in different ways. Perhaps "overclassification" isn't the right word; perhaps "misclassification for political purposes unrelated to national interest" is better; but it's also a mouthful of euphemisms that will cause near-terminal hypersomnia if used often enough to make a difference. The key point is this: In both the Manning and Snowden situations, the only forseeable damage that the releases thus far made could cause is embarassment of certain officials... and if you really think that a true enemy didn't already know everything they've released, you're far more trusting than I.