Edward Snowden Essay

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This essay reviews the relevant literature to provide a background on Edward Snowden and how his high-profile actions adversely affected the work of the National Security Agency (NSA). An analysis of what the NSA was doing prior to the leaks and how it collects intelligence information now is followed by an examination concerning what Snowden leaked and why. Finally, a discussion concerning whether the U.S. government violated Snowden’s constitutional rights is followed by a summary of the research and important findings concerning this issue in the conclusion.

Background of the Issue

Beginning in June 2013, Edward Snowden, a computer analyst working for the National Security Agency began leaking thousands of classified documents. These classified documents were disclosed to the Guardian and alleged that the NSA routinely gathered telephonic metadata from telecommunications companies, allowing them to scrutinize American citizens’ Internet activities (Morrison, 2014). According to Francheschi-Bicchierai (2014), among the thousands of documents that were leaked by Snowden, the secrets that were the most harmful to the NSA included the following:

Secret court orders authorized the NSA to review American citizens’ telephone records (Francheschi-Bicchierai, 2014), operating essentially as a domestic intelligence agency (Stein, 2013). In addition, Snowden revealed how the NSA’s telephone surveillance program can gather data on American citizens’ telephone calls including the numbers dialed, the length of the conversations and the dates on which they occurred (McCarthy, 2013).

The disclosure of PRISM, an initiative by the NSA’s to gain direct access to servers in major online providers such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, and others (Francheschi-Bicchierai, 2014). This disclosure caused a flood of criticism from the international community in general and the citizens of the U.S. and the U.K. concerning security, privacy, and government spying (Be very afraid, 2013). The PRISM initiative enables NSA officials to collect data from these major Internet companies has been in effect since 2007 as part of the global war on terrorism (Taking liberties in the name of freedom, 2013).

The NSA routinely conducts espionage on foreign countries and world leaders, even those friendly to the U.S. (Francheschi-Bicchierai, 2014).

The disclosure of XKeyscore, which allows the NSA to determine everything that a computer user does online (Francheschi-Bicchierai, 2014).

The NSA attempt to decode encrypted data and sabotage Internet security (Francheschi-Bicchierai, 2014).

The disclosure that an NSA team of hackers exists and what techniques they use (Francheschi-Bicchierai, 2014).

The NSA had access to the Google and Yahoo data centers (Francheschi-Bicchierai, 2014).

The NSA routinely gathers private citizens’ text messages (Francheschi-Bicchierai, 2014) and likely has access to audio versions of telephone calls (Be very afraid, 2013).

The NSA intercepts all telephone calls in Afghanistan and the Bahamas (Francheschi-Bicchierai, 2014).

An NSA program routinely intercepts e-mails of non-U.S. persons outside the United States (Yoo, 2014).

The disclosure of MonsterMind, an NSA cyberattack tool that automatically unleashes a hostile response when network intrusions are detected, a tool that Snowden alleges brought down Syria’s Internet service in 2003 (Ackerman, 2014).

Taken together, it is not surprising that the U.S. government wants to get their hands on Snowden who, following an international odyssey in search of asylum (Stein, 2013), is currently living in an unknown part of Russia temporarily while he seeks long-term sanctuary elsewhere (Be very afraid, 2013). To date, U.S. federal prosecutors have charged Snowden with theft of government property and espionage (Be very afraid, 2013) and has been characterized alternatively as a traitor and even an anarchist (McCarthy, 2013).

Given the clandestine nature of their mission, it would be disingenuous to claim to know how the NSA how collects its intelligence information post-Snowden, but the NSA’s mission today is clearly stated:  “The NSA leads the U.S. Government in cryptology that encompasses both Signals Intelligence and Information Assurance (IA) products and services, and enables Computer Network Operations in order to gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our allies under all circumstances” (NSA mission, 2014, para. 2).

Some indication of how the NSA goes about collecting intelligence data can be discerned from the Executive Order 12333 of December 4, 1981 that created the agency and its roles and responsibilities. Today, the NSA Director is tasked with the following

Collect (including through clandestine means), process, analyze, produce, and disseminate signals intelligence information and data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes to support national and departmental missions;

Act as the National Manager for National Security Systems as established in law and policy, and in this capacity be responsible to the Secretary of Defense and to the Director, National Intelligence; and,

Prescribe security regulations covering operating practices, including the transmission, handling, and distribution of signals intelligence and communications security material within and among the elements under control of the Director of the National Security Agency, and exercise the necessary supervisory control to ensure compliance with the regulations (NSA mission, 2014).

Likewise, the mission of the NSA’s Information Assurance is to “confront the formidable challenge of preventing foreign adversaries from gaining access to sensitive or classified national security information” (NSA mission, 2014, para. 2). In addition, the mission of the NSA’s The Signals Intelligence division is to “collect, process, and disseminate intelligence information from foreign signals for intelligence and counterintelligence purposes and to support military operations” (NSA mission, 2014, para. 3). The NSA emphasizes that the nature of its mission prevents further disclosure concerning its intelligence-gathering activities. In this regard, the NSA emphasizes that, “The National Security Agency/Central Security Service (NSA/CSS) is a key member of the Intelligence Community and, by its very nature, requires a high degree of confidentiality” (NSA frequently asked questions, 2014). Despite these vagaries, the NSA does state how it goes about intelligence-gathering today:  

The Agency collects, processes, and disseminates intelligence information from foreign electronic signals for national foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes and to support military operations. NSA/CSS is also tasked with preventing foreign adversaries from gaining access to classified national security information. (NSA frequently asked questions, 2014, para. 3).

Finally, the same Executive Order that created the NSA also outlined the NSA Director’s roles and responsibilities as follows:

Collect (including through clandestine means), process, analyze, produce, and disseminate signals intelligence information and data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes to support national and departmental missions;

Act as the National Manager for National Security Systems as established in law and policy, and in this capacity be responsible to the Secretary of Defense and to the Director, National Intelligence;….....

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Ackerman, S. (2014, August 13). Snowden casts doubt on NSA investigation into security     disclosures. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/13/snowden-doubt-nsa-investigation-security-disclosures.

Be very afraid: What we should have known about government spying before Edward Snowden's     leak. Reason, 45(5), 24-27.

Eichenwald, K. (2013, November 1). How Edward Snowden escalated cyber war. Newsweek,     161(39), 1.

Francheschi-Bicchierai, L. (2014, June 5). Mashable. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2014/06/05/edward-snowden-revelations/.
Grabiner, G. (2012, Winter). Commentary: Government and market surveillance, emergence of     
    mass political society, and the need for progressive social change. Social Justice, 39(4),     
Hayden, M. V. (2014, January-February). Beyond Snowden: An NSA reality check. World     Affairs, 176(5), 13-15.

McCarthy, C. (20134, August 30). Whistleblowers shine light on US shadows. National Catholic     Reporter, 49(23), 24.

Morrison, S. R. (2014, Spring). The system of domestic counterterrorism law enforcement.     Stanford Law & Policy Review, 25(2), 341-344.

NSA frequently asked questions. (2014). National Security Agency. Retrieved from   https://www.nsa.gov/about/faqs/index.shtml.

NSA mission. (2014). National Security Agency. Retrieved from https://www.nsa.gov/about/mission/index.shtml.

Schow, A. (2013, July 15). Edward Snowden nominated for Nobel Peace Prize. Examiner     (Washington, D.C.), 3.

Stein, J. (2013, October 25). Edward Snowden on line two. Newsweek, 161(38), 1.

Surdak, C. (2014). Data crush: How the information tidal wave is driving new business     opportunities. New York:  AMACOM. 

Taking liberties in the name of freedom. (2013, July 5). Times Educational Supplement, 5051,     44.

Yoo, J. C. (2014, Summer). The legality of the National Security Agency's bulk data     surveillance programs. Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, 37(3), 901-912.

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