ML: Let’s come back to the logic of the president’s claim of ignorance. Do you find it credible?
JJA: It all depends.
ML: Huh? Depends on what?
JJA: Depends on which statement you believe is a lie. On the one hand he claims to micromanage the drone program. On the other hand, he claims ignorance of the intercepts. It seems impossible for both claims to be true. So we’re told that he chooses targets for assassination by drones, but not snooping targets.
His personal involvement in choosing drone victims was spelled out in some detail by the New York Times:
Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.
Seems pretty explicit, doesn’t it? But we’re also told, according to the White House, that the snooping decisions, which after all are of far less consequence, are made by underlings. Here’s the exact language, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens:
President Barack Obama went nearly five years without knowing his own spies were bugging the phones of world leaders. Officials said the NSA has so many eavesdropping operations under way that it wouldn’t have been practical to brief him on all of them.
They added that the president was briefed on and approved of broader intelligence-collection “priorities,” but that those below him make decisions about specific targets.”
ML: It’s an odd picture.
ML: “Between you and me, I never believed the story about his choosing the victims of drone attacks. Too much work. Plus, it would incur enormous personal liability (might get him dragged in front of the International Criminal Court on a war crimes charge) and of course the risk of a crazed avenger. So if I had to bet, I’d bet he was fibbing on that story. Ok, let’s move on a bit. In all the excitement, there’s a tendency to forget what started the intercept scandal.
JJA: Snowden is the proximate cause of the current pseudo-frenzy.
ML: I can imagine what you think about Snowden…
JJA: Anyone with a working brain would have to take seriously the possibility that Snowden is a fully recruited enemy agent.
ML: Well that’s certainly carefully stated, isn’t it?
JJA: Counterintelligence isn’t for people who like to arrive at quick conclusions. So you start with plausible hypotheses and test them, knowing that you’ll often fail to prove any one of them.
ML: Agreed. Although maybe somewhere in that pile of big data there’s real evidence.
JJA: Maybe. That would be real poetic justice. In any case, there’s a decent prima facie case that he was recruited by the Russians and worked for them. I’m told that he lived in the Russian consulate in Hong Kong. Is that true? If it is, that would support the hypothesis.
ML: On the other hand, he might be an idealist, right? Shocked and outraged at all the snooping.
JJA: Yes, it’s possible. But whatever his motives, he’s done enormous damage to the United States. Notice the way the Brits have been talking about it: the new head of MI5 said that Snowden’s leaks have “caused enormous damage” and enabled terrorists to attack the UK “at will.” That’s strong language.
ML: And the former acting director of CIA calls the Snowden Affair “the damage here was extensive — the most damage that I have ever seen from a disclosure….In my mind, this guy is not a hero. He has violated the law….” That’s also pretty strong stuff.
JJA: Indeed. But the press coverage is only just beginning to come to grips with the gravity of it all. We were penetrated, a vast quantity of terribly important information was delivered to our enemies, and we’re in a real war, deprived of what has been our most potent weapon. And now…
oops! static, little flashes of light from the ouija board…
JJA: Idiots want to shut down even more…
And he was gone. I never had a chance to ask him about his own unhappy experience, back when he was opening letters — letters! — to U.S. antiwar activists from foreign Communists. It was exposed in that era’s precursor of the Snowden operation, and was one of the big stories that led to his own purge from CIA.
All in all, I’d say he showed remarkable self-discipline. Like good spooks are supposed to…