From Newport, an ex-spy's take on Snowden

By PHILIP EIL  |  July 2, 2013

A 'SPOOK' Schindler.

“There has never been anything quite like this in the annals of American espionage,” John Schindler wrote in The National Interest last month. “While there have been plenty of traitors, more than a few defectors, plus some whistleblowers (some of whom turned out later to have been under the control of foreign intelligence services), Snowden seems increasingly to be a postmodern combination of all three, perfectly tuned to the age of the Internet, 24/7 news coverage and Twitter.”

He was describing Edward Snowden, of course, the 29-year-old former government contractor whose leak of classified National Security Agency documents to The Guardian triggered the surely-immortal line from President Obama, “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls.”

And Schindler was speaking from no shortage of expertise on both spycraft and the Internet Age. For nearly a decade, from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, Schindler was a senior intelligence analyst for the NSA — a “spook,” in his words, with expertise in the Balkans, Southwest Asia, and the Middle East. Now, he’s a professor of National Security Affairs at Newport’s Naval War College with a rapid-fire Twitter account. (He recently swapped barbed tweets with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian writer at the center of the Snowden story, and challenged him to a debate. Greenwald has yet to accept the offer.)

So if you’ve watched the surreal, ripped-from-a-spy-novel events of the last few weeks and wondered, “What would a spy say?” Well, we have a retired one here in Rhode Island who isn’t shy. He spoke with the Phoenix by phone over the weekend.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

WILL THIS CASE SHOW UP IN ONE OF YOUR NAVAL WAR COLLEGE CLASSES? HOW WILL YOU PRESENT IT? I can pretty much guarantee you the next time I teach my classified intelligence elective, we will be discussing Snowden at great length. And I think the issues there are: How does this happen, from a security perspective? How does an individual who obviously has significant issues wind up with this sort of access? What motivates someone to do what he’s done? And of course the real question is, how do you prevent it from happening again?

And part of that [conversation] is understanding the damage that he has done, which certainly looks very considerable. [T]he fact that he’s been in China and now is on some sort of extended stay in Russia indicates that if he really does have, as we’ve heard, thousands of pages of highly classified documents with him, one would have to assume that the Russians and Chinese may well have those documents, as well.

WHY DO SECRETS MATTER? States of all kinds have done espionage for as long as there have been states. Espionage is not called “the second oldest profession” without reason. I think, frankly, there’s been a lot of what I call “techno-utopianism” among twentysomethings. There’s a bit of a Julian Assange flavor to all this, [the idea] that secrecy is somehow immoral. No, secrecy is not. I mean we have protections for the public. We have the Freedom of Information Act. The public is allowed to know a lot — much more than in almost any other country in the world, if you’re an American. 

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