Center for Strategic Communication

Edward Snowden is one of history’s great actors. But not in the way his admirers (and some detractors) believe, as will be made clear at the end of this post. An earlier draft of this entry looked at the leak, but not much useful things can really be written at this stage of what looks to be a fairly complicated game (see the “Leaks, Politics, and Power” entry for the general leak cycle and its discontents). So it was scrapped and deleted from the iPad this was written on.

One of the greatest barriers to writing something worth reading about the PRISM/Snowden affair is how deeply bizarre it is. Hong Kong. Network graphs with trillions of data points. A weird story that doesn’t hold up to even the slightest scrutiny. But my Twitter timeline took greatest umbrage to Snowden’s salary. Snowden was bringing home 200K a year, enraging many DC and FP tweeters not known for comity or agreement. Certainly,
its likely this total–like many other details of the Guardian and Washington Post stories–was
a rank exaggeration. But from all accounts, Snowden had a pretty
comfortable life. So why was this lowly IT tech so valuable?

The best way to explain why our Hong Kong-hiding leaker is just so interesting is to take a picaresque journey through the tangled mess that is the confluence between computational power, the national security bureaucracy, and counterterrorism threat politics. So join us, then, for a spin around the Universal Studios backlot to see how this film came to be. They rigged up the Back to the Future ride so it can actually go back in time.

You strap in and the car zooms forward. The Snowden story begins almost one hundred fifty years ago, when the invention of the telegraph generates military power. It allows continental offensives in North America and slows British sea power’s seemingly inevitable erosion. Primitive analytical engines foretell the steady offloading of cognitive tasks onto computational engines. The krigspiel is born as an artificial environment in which warfare can, for the first time, be modeled and simulated with a degree of accuracy useful to master strategists. Modern war as we know it goes part and parcel with these systems.

By World War II, the pace of conflict has grown so massively fast and involves such immense numerical tasks that anti-aircraft defenses can no longer be operated by human reflexes alone. Instead, the father of cybernetics creates a self-correcting machine that can keep up with the fighters roaring over the global battlefield. Operations research techniques now solve the most difficult tactical and even strategic problems. By mid-Cold War, the massive American conventional and nuclear military machine and its immense command control architecture can be considered a set of nested cybernetic loops that sustain a peacetime strategic competition of biblical proportions. Computational power is combat power.

But let’s pause a bit. The clash of armies, fighters, and missiles is only one part of the process of cognitive offloading and the growth of a massive cybernetic backbone beneath modern society. The time machine takes you back from the seat of the military-industrial complex to the halls of the 19th century European state. You are a bureaucrat, a relatively new addition to the halls of government. The good news? Your abiity to extract and distribute human and material resources is immensely improved, and not a moment too soon. Bureaucratic and technical knowledge, mapping of social systems, and other forms of information processing are the key to doing so. The continent trembles as the interstate great power system collapses.  The specter of future wars of annihilation loom.

Worse yet, things at home ain’t so hot either. The society that generations of your forefathers have lived is in tatters. From the barricades of Paris to the dueling secret societies of Qing China, the balance between state, society, and the market teeters on the edge of oblivion. A German expat living in London has just published a manifesto, and occult beliefs about everything from an obscure Indo-European ethnic group to a supposed “Golden Dawn” are spreading like wildfire. Transnational networks of internal security policemen spread to counteract a wave of anarchist bombings.  However, you must divide the bulk of your energy between information-processing tasks devoted to internal security and prepartions for world war.

Fast forward again to early 20th century America. You are another government bureaucrat in a newly created bureau, and James Cagney plays you in a violent, messy movie that still manages to exude some measure of Hollywood glamor. The US has escaped the worst of the Great War, but society is coming apart at the seams. Prohibition and the Depression are tearing away at the social fabric. Decades of bloody labor riots, anarchist terrorism, and the flagrant use of mercenaries by industrial bosses against American citizens have created a veritable tinderbox. Abroad, the empires of the East and West arm with frightening new weapons. At home, fanatical ideologies of the right and left attract followers. Will Mr. London’s science fiction thriller come true?

You, however, served with the now-infamous leaker Yardley in the Black Chamber. Yes, you knew that man for whom the Espionage Act was amended. But you have your own signals intelligence setup now. Wiretapping has been put to use in both internal security functions and the curbing of organized crime. FPRI’s Lawrence Husick writes about the data you’re collecting and analyzing:

The lives of most citizens in the developed world have become…cataloged. We move through a digital sea, leaving in our wake vast
amounts of disjointed data and ripples that spread outward, waiting to
be interpreted in ways that we cannot imagine. …In the “CSI” programs, we have come to understand that each of us sheds
millions of microscopic particles as we live our lives. Flakes of dead
skin, strands of hair, saliva on envelopes and from sneezes, tracked
pollen, dirt, bacteria…the detritus of just being, all waits to be
collected, sorted, and analyzed by skilled forensic technician heroes
who catch the bad guys before they strike again. So, too, our digital
detritus tells our stories in unseen and unsuspected ways. Each credit
transaction, text message, telephone call, toll booth, parking gate,
card swipe, pay-per-view, channel change, travel reservation, and
thousands of other daily digital “dots” is being vacuumed up and stored
in warehouses that dwarf the final scene in “Raiders of the Last Ark.”

Finally, you embark on the last time jump to 2013.  Once you land in 2013, Washington DC, the time-travel car is immediately attacked and destroyed by a mob of hairless cats that look like Vladimir Putin. No more time travel for you. The theme park ride is over, and now you sit dazed next to the smoking rubble of the car outside an Arlington office building where a defense contractor is making magic happen in the SCIF. 

What’s to see? Plenty. The public, contrary to the beliefs of many Benjamin Franklin-quoting anti-counterterrorism (CT) activists, defines its liberty in very much economic terms and seems nonplussed by the NSA. Recent polling shows that the public still supports the decade+ old electronic and legal backbone of the post-9/11 CT state. Some even want the National Security Agency to go further than PRISM.There are rumblings of discontent but the leadership of both parties stand firmly behind a suite of interlinked counterterrorism policies.

The political objectives favored by the establishment and for the most part opposed by no organized and politically mobilized force are expansive. Even a foiled terrorist attack turns into a domestic political mess, and thus politicians and the public desire a level of security that has immense data requirements.  The intelligence community aims to prevent future acts of terror with Iraq-proven network analytics that pinpoint and exploit the connections of extremist groups. These groups’ internal structures are otherwise poorly understood, but analytics can do wonders. The analytics exploit the irregular actors’ only major weakness: the illicit organizational flows of money, data, and people across the globe.

You take a zipcar (those darn millennials just don’t buy cars anymore!) up to a certain fort in Maryland to observe a legal government structure key to this apparatus. Before you is a interrelated network of high-performance computing which must process a 4.4 trillion node, 70-trillion edge complex network graph taken from various technical platforms. 

Here’s what a generic complex network graph looks like:


Beautiful, isn’t it? No, do not try to understand it unless the words “eigenvector centrality” mean anything to you. But you try anyway. The world flashes and you wake up in the back of a patrol car moving through McLean, VA. Now you’re in a jail cell as a police officer explained just what happened. As it turns out, you ended up looking at complex network graphs of the Web and the Internet. Your head started to spin as the true nature of the interface that you use to go to 4Chan became brutally apparent. And then?

Your puny human brain simply couldn’t process the immense, atemporal, multilayered, and both corporeal and noncorporeal complex network known as cyberspace, so you invented a fantasy that cyberspace is a separate world that you can fight wars in with 20th century strategic bombing metaphors. You lost your mind and ended up physically assaulting an elderly Marine that just happened to be eating lunch at the Tyson’s Corner food court, yelling “EBO will never die!”

While you sit in the McLean jail cell, you discover that you are not the only one to suffer from this odd affliction. Other men, with strange fashion accessories hanging from their necks and a kind of currency you have never seen before are also there. You overhear the prison doctors say these prisoners are plagued with apocalyptic nightmares about anarchy, chaos, and even cannibalism breaking out en masse.

You find a book lying around about the history of American military command and control. Its author makes an interesting argument: the political, bureaucratic, and even cultural rivalries inherent in the American political-military system translates into a byzantine government electronic and computer command, control, and communications system that is gigantic and filled with systems that are immensely differentiated and complex. Expensive ad-hoc fixes are necessary to keep the whole thing running. It’s no wonder that the people that can make this immense contraption function are rewarded handsomely, given immense responsibility, and hired in such great numbers!

You begin to feel cold fear pulsing through your veins as one of the people in the cell next door starts screaming about horrible devices of torture called “CAC cards” and “AKO.” You do not know what these horrible things–or perhaps creatures–may be, but they must be enough to make any man tremble. Suddenly the jail cell swings open, and you’re free. All charges have been dropped, on the condition you never set foot in the Washington D.C. metro area again. You are banned for life on pain of a particularly horrendous punishment: riding an endless WMTA loop.

Renting a piece of junk car from a shady used car salesman that you’ve seen somewhere before but can’t quite place, you decide that you want to go to Hawaii for a vacation. You drive cross-country in the hope of making a trip with your LA friends, who are traveling to see a show by a famed acrobatic pole dancer. Driving across a recession-struck America, you notice that half of all recent college graduates are unemployed and underemployed. MAs are strugging, and the person serving you a Chipotle at a rest stop is using his dissertation to roll blunts in the stockroom. Surely there must be some industries untouched by this catastrophe?

On the way to your ultimate destination (Los Angeles International Airport), you take a stop over in San Francisco. There is a man on a soapbox near the Presidio reading a Declaration of Independence for the Internet. Next to him, a man with a TED t-shirt is claiming that dictators are helpless against kids with iPhones. He barely gets a word off before an enraged Eastern European national tackles him. Taking a bus around the Valley, you visit the campuses of large companies. These giants are coding programs that will create in turn a vast, data-empowered collection of semi-autonomous computational agents handling everything from hotel reservations to high-frequency trading. It is called “vast, automatic, and invisible” in a McKinsey report you see lying around a Mountain View coffee shop. You have a feeling that even the most advanced and privacy-intruding sites today have a long way to go too.

When you finally take the LAX flight to Hawaii, you hear the news about a contractor that fled to China after leaking a trove of secrets. There’s something about his betrayal of trust that viscerally disgusts you, but you also feel uneasy about the new world that you have seemingly entered. People are shouting on the plane about “1984 is coming” and “Give us everything or the terrorists win” but you don’t really feel well represented by either.

Why? Well, you know from history that democracies often overreach without it being a sign of Big Brother and Ingsoc.  Complex technical subjects in any area (war, economics, the environment) are rarely understood at first go by the legislature and broad laws are often passed that may limit the ability of said legislature to exercise effective oversight (assuming it even desires it). But hey–that’s democracy. Wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s also a legitimate point to be made that current technology goverance for both the government and the private sector use of analytics has not kept pace with the times. Still, you’re not sure how any of this gets better by leaking legal programs and fleeing to China.

Someone in the seat next to you asks you for the solution. You blank out, because it’s a vast and complex problem that really depends on the American people doing what they so far have not done: pressing their representatives to do something different. That, and you also are beginning to feel yourself getting sleepy. You fall asleep as the plane begins to touch down in Hawaii, and the news says that Snowden and The Guardian may be ready for another leak…..

So why is Edward Snowden one of history’s great actors? OK, maybe its not Edward Snowden singular but many Edward Snowdens. Without them, that vast, heterogenous, and complex system that we have just traversed cannot function. It’s not contractors who are to blame for the Snowden affair, as Bradley Manning was certainly no CTR. It’s not PRISM itself, as there will always be at least one government policy that a future Snowden will loathe. And there will be more Snowdens to come.

As clunky as government information technology/command and control/intelligence systems are, they ultimately are geared towards facilitating convenience, top-down control, and interorganizational collaboration. But making the interagency collaborate, empowering political control, and helping the FOIA requests go through requires Snowdens to fix the broken links inherent in the hardware and software legacy left by the dysfunctions of a steadily growing governmental sphere.

The last couple years’ concentration of leaks and the risks posed by the Snowdens of the military-industrial complex will further compartment and disperse the system and the men and women who make it run. Both top-down control and outside accountability will be made more difficult by the fact that the resulting governmental technological system may eventually come to resemble the Library of Babel.  And if this information dystopia comes to pass, we’ll likely remember the Snowden affair as a pivotal moment that locked us into path dependence.