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Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden and the Modern Whistleblower (newyorker.com)
117 points by sajid on Dec 12, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 92 comments

Gladwell's biggest omission is the stories of Thomas Drake and William Binney. Two predecessors that Snowden was well aware of, who tried to be, as Gladwell puts it "leakers as insiders". They were systematically shut down, and Snowden learned that was no longer an option for him, so he became a "leaker as outsider".

The nature and style of Snowden's whistleblowing is not because he loves the hacker-chic style. It's because the CIA and NSA proved they were perfectly capable of covering up the most damaging "insider" whistleblowers and he still thought this information was worth releasing to the public.

I've made this argument for a long time: any damage to the US from the Snowden leaks was because the government refused to clean house when they became aware of problems through internal channels. Snowden was merely a concerned employee revealing to shareholders that business executives were willfully defrauding investors and breaking fiduciary duty, to use an analogy. The reason he didn't use internal channels was executives up to the board level had previously targeted other leakers as part of their criminal conspiracy.

This gets to motivations and intent but doesn't really answer the question posed by the article, which is: are insiders who leak carefully and strategically creating better public policy outcomes than the indiscriminate leaks that IT people have been generating?

There's obviously a lot to both positions, but as a succinct answer: I would argue that a mixed policy likely generates the best outcomes -- by instigating a crisis to motivate public interest and movement on the topic, and then sustained, strategic leaks over the following decade(s), once there's an interested cohort (with a baseline of evidence).

Ill date myself a bit here by saying that Snowden is the only major leak of my lifetime, but it seems to me that he was able to get traction on the issue when a lot of people had failed to (eg, there were rumors of NSA programs before including from NSA insiders, but little public attention), but what has kept the topic alive is a series of strategic leaks of new information to sustain public attention and keep the debate focused on it being a current issue.

So in some senses, I think we need those doc drops of "They're really looking at all your dick pics, hook-up texts, and tracking every illicit meet-up", but I also think that we get a lot more usage out of quieter leaks of key details, once the conversation is happening.

That was sort of the point of my analogy: quiet rumors from key staff to shareholders were ignored or suppressed by executive staff until one guy in accounting dropped the whole set of books. This obviously leaked a bunch of business secrets, but Id argue the only way to comprehend the scale of wrongdoing was to see that the entire system had become organized around that illicit activity.

It was only in that context we could even start a conversation about the scope of what had gone awry.

Which raises an interesting corollary: is there such a thing as an "indiscriminate" leak?

Recent events have shown that WikiLeaks' practice of leaking anything they have has instead created an opportunity for targeted leaks by selectively passing information to them.

>are insiders who leak carefully and strategically creating better public policy outcomes than the indiscriminate leaks that IT people have been generating?

the insiders aren't effecting policy outcomes whatsoever. they're getting snuffed out and swept under the rug.

throwing open the barn door is the only way the public gets enough information to clean it out.

literally the best analogy i have heard on the subject. thanks

I just grep'd for Prouty and nothing showed up. Even his wikipedia page [1] is a bit scrubbed and buries his important act of blowing the whistle on the shadow government [2]. Btw, Prouty discusses Ellsberg directly in his book. It is 'interesting' reading for sure.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L._Fletcher_Prouty

[2]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Secret_Team

Prouty was certainly a very interesting fellow, but unfortunately his best-known "revelation" -- regarding the role of the so-called Secret Team cabal in the JFK assassination -- appears to have been basically a morass of unfounded speculation.†

And of course, his later dealings with the Liberty Lobby and the IHR didn't exactly help to burnish his image much, either.

† Unless one buys the Secret Team / JFK hypothesis, that is -- which I don't.

Great point. By the way, this was a point I believe Clinton and the Democratic party have been egregiously lying about. Clinton:

> When he emerged and when he absconded with all that material, I was puzzled, because we have all these protections for whistleblowers."

Source: https://freedom.press/news-advocacy/fact-checking-hillary-cl...

Thanks for linking to that article.

The most amusing part of it, IMO, is the last sentence: "privacy could be a more important election issue than ever."

Makes the political consciousness of 2014 seem so adorably naive.

While I agree that Drake and Binney were "leakers as insiders", I do not agree that this impacts the narrative of the article. Snowden wasn't an NSA outsider because he didn't want to be an insider. He was an NSA outsider because he was an NSA outsider --- his attempts to be an insider failed.

Moreover, there's more to the point Gladwell is making than that Snowden wasn't an insider. The core point of the piece is that Ellsberg's insider status enabled him to leak carefully, and to redact strategically. Snowden demonstrably did not do this: not only did things get published that weren't in the American public interest, but other things that were (for instance: traces of the Juniper/Netscreen backdoor, or implants in other VPN products) were never published.

It's not just that Snowden wasn't an insider, but that he lacked the ability to leak carefully and strategically --- and so the public outcome was inferior to the Pentagon Papers.

> It's not just that Snowden wasn't an insider, but that he lacked the ability to leak carefully and strategically --- and so the public outcome was inferior to the Pentagon Papers.

This is hard to believe. I find it much more likely that Snowden had a broad agenda he wanted to cover, and simply decided to delegate the work of sifting through documents relevant to the public interest to journalists. How successful this strategy was is another issue entirely.

Also, the direct comparison between the material Ellsberg had to work with and what Snowden had is misleading. Ellsberg leaked a study from RAND literally designed to assess and document the history of the Vietnam War, including past failures. It's easy to look at that and go, "Wow, this is a careful, strategic disclosure." But Ellsberg couldn't have had an easier choice about what to leak!

In contrast, Snowden had access to a much more disparate set of documents that required lots of interpretation and technical parsing on journalists' part. There wasn't a single PowerPoint presentation that summed up NSA's abuses so conveniently.

That doesn't necessarily justify scraping as much as possible and passing it over to journos, but we have to keep the two men's access to material in context.

Can you be more specific about what exactly it is you find hard to believe, what you believe instead, and what evidence could be presented to you to change your belief?

The notion that he "lacked the ability to leak carefully and strategically" because he was an outsider. I'm fairly sure he was more than capable of selecting only documents related to domestic surveillance if he wanted to -- that just wasn't his broader goal. However, I would definitely appreciate the argument that his status as an outsider rendered him opposed to the idea of leaking selectively. I think the author hinted at this when he contrasted "hackers" and "leakers", but it's still quite different from what you're saying.

I think the biggest reason the Pentagon Papers leak was so much more impactful was that there was already a much larger fraction of the citizenry sensitized to the issue and inclined to act on what was revealed.

Someone else made the point that Ellsberg was also lucky in that the information he wanted to leak was already collected into a document. It's hardly Snowden's fault that he didn't have this luxury.

Anyway, for the record, I don't disagree with the argument that a highly placed insider could have leaked better-selected material and overall been more effective -- albeit at a level of personal risk that can only be described as extreme (and much greater than what Ellsberg faced). In the event, however, no such person chose to leak the most important material that Snowden leaked.

The thrust of your argument seems to be that Snowden should have said to himself, "I'm just an IT lackey; what do I know?" and not attempted to rise to this occasion. That would be where we disagree. Yes, in some hypothetical alternate world, there might have been a better-placed leaker who would have made better choices and been more careful. But Snowden had no way to know that any such person would ever appear, and neither do you.

The article seems to use the labels 'insider' and 'hacker' to contrast the intent of the two, when the labels should be just used to define their circumstances.

Both Snowden and Ellsberg appear to have done a good job at informing the public given those circumstances, Snowden's being inferior because his circumstances constrained him, not his intentions.

Did Snowden steal more data than he needs to because he's a hacker and he can't help himself? Or because he thought its better to take more than less, and then have the journalists figure out what's appropriate?

It seems to me that the Snowden approach of leaving the decision of what should be published to journalists (such as the New York Times) is the better approach.

We don't really want anybody to leak anything they personally find interesting, but we do want (good) journalists to be able to discover important stories.

As I said elsewhere, the end result of this appears to have been demonstrably suboptimal --- again, stipulating that this is regarding the American public interest:

* Some stuff got published that was important and vital (though its impact on public policy was ultimately minimal).

* Some stuff got published that simply shouldn't have been leaked --- for instance, details of technical implants useful only in narrowly targeted espionage.

* Some stuff didn't get published that should have been --- for instance, in light of what we later discovered about Juniper/Netscreen, had everyone to do this earlier, a list of vendors impacted by VPN implants would have been helpful, and could have been doable.

* Some stuff got published that were simple false, such as the notion of a "PRISM" system that gave NSA direct access to Google's systems.

A more carefully curated, competently explained process of leaking could have improved all these outcomes, and that's exactly what Gladwell is suggesting Ellsberg accomplished that Snowden didn't.

One could just as easily argue that if Ellsberg had focused on making documents public more quickly, more lives could have been saved during the Vietnam War.

Both were imperfect people in unique situations, but Gladwell's distinction seems to boil down to "Harvard, game theory, & Nobel prize winning PhD advisor" in the case of Ellsberg vs. "community-college dropout" in the case of Snowden, followed by Gladwell falling over himself to redefine "insider" right after spelling it out in detail with the language of class, prestige, and societal privilege.

I don't think Gladwell understands enough about either person - or "leaks" in general - to draw meaningful conclusions.

Well, first of all, thank you for putting it this succinctly; I honestly hadn't understood where the "elitism" claims were coming from, but, sure, that makes sense.

Here's the thing, though: Gladwell is probably not wrong about this. Ellsberg was far better read in to the program he leaked about that Snowden is to the topics of his leaks. As you can imagine, most of my industry friends and acquaintances are broadly pro-Snowden, and an argument that I've seen from literally none of them is that Edward Snowden had the technical expertise to either vet his documents himself, or to build a process whereby they would be effectively vetted. Which you can see by the shitshow that was the original PRISM disclosures.

I wouldn't disagree with your friends and acquaintances on that point, but would suspect that they reached their conclusions differently from Gladwell.

Another potentially self-serving issue that Gladwell conveniently glosses over in this piece: We could also make the argument that Ellsberg also had a much more effective and courageous press and educated population behind him. But it's easier to smear community college drop-outs and discuss a hypothetical "Edward Snowberg" than a hypothetical New Yorker with more reporters like Jane Mayer than commentators like Gladwell.

I think it's a mistake to assume:

1. That the Juniper Netscreen backdoor was the work of NSA. Even Bruce Schneier doesn't conjecture that it was NSA in his blog post on the topic.

2. That Edward Snowden had access to all documents of public interest, such as the Dual_EC vulnerability injection or malware specifics. Edward Snowden said that he worked with journalists to leak the documents with the most public interest.

1. I didn't say that the Netscreen backdoor was NSA (I don't think it was).

2. I believe you are wrong about Dual_EC's representation in the Snowden document cache, and believe that because of some particularly trustworthy secondhand sources that told me so. However: that's actually not the complaint I have; rather: putting more attention on VPN concentrators as implant targets would have been beneficial no matter what the technical details were.

I still assert that it's likely that Snowden didn't have that information. I do not have access to the original Snowden documents so I can't verify whether they are included in the document cache or not.

I'm confused as to why you brought up the Netscreen backdooring as an omission, then admit that you don't think it was NSA. Are you saying that the Netscreen backdoor was known by the NSA as an adversarial nation's work? Please clarify.

I don't think anyone thinks Snowden knew he had that information --- that's part of the problem. But I know people who are in position to know who assert directly that his leaks included that material.

Ok, I didn't fully understand your point. You disagree with the "dump all docs on Greenwald and hope for the best" method of leaking, as does the author of the article (and I do).

Thanks for responding.

Plus Snowden didn't study game theory at Harvard and he wasn't schooled on the utility of leaks.

Why should we take Gladwell seriously on this? Why does anyone think he is qualified? He is a windbag famous for writing the most base and insulting form of literary clickbait: pop science novels that tell a series of 'just so' fables which add up to give the reader a satisfying sense of the world which is completely opposed to the world the way it is. He is a propaganda artist at best, insidious at least.

And now he writes on Snowden, omits hugely important pieces of the story, warps the narrative in service of his hip contrarianism and unsurprisingly misses the point completely but distracts with cute anecdotes about Ellsberg.

I guess the question we should be asking ourselves is why is he given a spot to write a long-form article like this in the New Yorker? Why does anyone still take him seriously at this point? Has intellectualism in this country truly failed this hard?

Perhaps a good thing could come from this: people who have done their due diligence and read about Snowden will read this and recognize Gladwell for the hack he is.

In my opinion, he's given this spot to write his article because he is a good writer and his stories are compelling. You are right, he typically writes fluffy pop science that's almost as misleading as it is entertaining. On the other hand, that too is bought and consumed in large quantities, fueling his success.

To my mind the shame is that there could be some interesting stuff in here but it gets glossed over. The contrast between Ellsberg and Snowden interest me greatly but I find little satisfaction in the piece. Gladwell implies Ellsberg cries over how far "the leaker" has fallen, perhaps he cries for the crime that is everyone above Snowden in the organization chart turning a blind eye to something so morally wrong. For me, it's easy to assume Gladwell is more interested in a appealing ending rather than something that educates or informs.

I share your opinion of Gladwell in general, but I read the piece without knowing he wrote it, only seeing his name at the very end. I was actually surprised and impressed; I felt that Gladwell actually gave the topic much better attention and research than most of his pop-sci nonsense.

My two disappointments: his forcing of the dichotomy between Ellsberg as an insider-elite vs. Snowden's outsider/college-dropout perspective, and his praise of governmental support/intervention in things such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic (which is ridiculous; it took forever to actually convince the Reagan administration that AIDS was a big deal)... but otherwise I found the article to be pretty fair.

Could you be more specific about how he's "warped the narrative" in this piece? I feel like I've done my due diligence on this topic and I felt like it was both well written and made a pretty compelling point.

Further, the places where Gladwell departs from the message board orthodoxy on Snowden aren't at all out of step with what other reporters who covered him had to say. For instance: read Fred Kaplan's review of the Snowden movie, which recaps many of the points Gladwell made here, but is far more acidic.

To give an example, Gladwell cherry-picks quotes to misrepresent Snowden's views in this piece. The strong stench of elitism and intellectual dishonesty in insinuating that Snowden is a fool because he claims that non-governmental institutions have important roles to play in solving social problems is typical, and I would venture to speculate that Gladwell would never say the same thing about someone like Larry Lessig (who has actually spoken with Snowden), even though they happen to hold similar views on those topics, particularly in relation to the examples Snowden gave in the quote.

Gladwell's process serves well enough as a lazy caricature for the piece but doesn't represent a good-faith articulation of his subject's views, which is hard to excuse in light of the dozens of events, thousands of tweets, etc. that are much more accessible than Ellsberg material was decades ago.

Gladwell could have interviewed Snowden and Ellsberg but probably chose not to, perhaps because it was easier to trash-talk someone whose life is under threat at an especially sensitive time (pardon consideration) for a "clever" contrast with Ellsberg than to try to represent his perspective in good faith.

Which quotes are cherry picked? How is Snowden's view misrepresented? Is it your argument that Snowden has a greater respect for governing institutions (conceptual or in reality) than the piece represents?

Long before this piece was published, I had the impression of Snowden as a sort of technocratic an-cap type.

I will confess to not being the slightest bit interested in what Ellsberg thinks of Snowden, and far more interested in what people report about Ellsberg and Snowden than what either of them think of each other.

Mostly the far-from-charitable interpretation of "When we talk about saving lives, when we are talking about fighting cancer, treating AIDS, ameliorating poverty, these solutions typically are not coming from government. . . . While law is important . . . at the end of the day law is simply letters on a page."

My argument was that Gladwell is painting a cheap caricature of a "hacker" when it's both easy and reasonable to interpret a quote like the one above in the broader context of the full speech/event and the dozens of others that he's given in recent years.

I'm not trying to argue that Snowden has or doesn't have respect for governing institutions. I think that's Snowden's story to tell. But my read of the piece is that Gladwell reached some "clever" sounding conclusion - perhaps in a "blink" - and then found a quote that supported his narrative, which reads more like Harvard-worship in Ellsberg's favor than careful presentation of arguments/evidence. This strikes me as misleading and dishonest in light of the sheer volume of interviews, tweets, etc. from Snowden that (at least to me) paint a more nuanced and careful picture.

I can understand bristling at the association of technophilic anarcho-capitalism with the word "hacker", but I'm less convinced by the argument that mere invocation of the concept of technophilic anarcho-capitalism is out of bounds, because it is clearly "a thing" in our community.

Invoking the concept isn't out of bounds, but having watched a decent number of presentations, talks, and interviews by/about this particular person, the lack of nuance in describing someone whose views seem especially easy to find was frustrating and likely deliberate. It took me all of five seconds to find Snowden's last tweet on the particular argument Gladwell references, which was about a week ago (bold font): https://twitter.com/Snowden/status/805868198138703873

Gladwell's uninformed gee-whiz speculation seems like an excuse to parrot the claim that Snowden "may have been the dupe of a foreign-intelligence service" without mentioning any evidence or even a clear argument beyond its appearance in a book. Maybe Snowden was that or worse, but the only argument Gladwell seems to construct to support the claim is that he was a dupe/fool because he didn't go Harvard like Ellsberg.

My post was primarily an anti-Gladwell rant rather than a rant in defense of Snowden, but sure I'll bite.

First omission of the essential context of the entire story, which is to say the many leakers who were analogous to Ellsberg -- mentioned upthread in detail, "inside men" who were "serious" and "respected" and attempted to take their concerns through proper channels. Gladwell doesn't mention that it had been tried before, and what happened to the people who did it. Gladwell presents his own context, contrived and mostly irrelevant, and uses it to replace the real context that's relevant to the case. Leakers in the vein of Ellsberg tried. They were shut down. The modern culture of absolute secrecy, unquestioning obedience and tribal loyalty combined with the unlimited power of the national security apparatus and the President's willingness to eviscerate in an unprecedented fashion anyone who dares speak out against the status quo is too powerful to overcome through normal channels.

Second is mostly about the way he leaves the reader feeling; his insidious storytelling which tells a series of truths but leaves the reader holding onto a huge lie, a technique characteristic of Gladwell: I walked away from that piece thinking that Ellsberg is a serious player because he worked at a serious private firm contracted to do spy work, and was instrumental in the spy work that was done and leaked it, while Snowden was not.

Yet Snowden worked at a serious private firm contracted to do spy work, and was instrumental in the spy work that was done. He is a tech person and not an intelligence analyist, but now the spying is all technical. The technical details of how it's collected, stored, etc are completely analogous to the information Ellsberg had before our technical era. Techies are the ones who know what's actually going on in today's spy business, not people who wear suits and make nice with Henry Kissinger.

Every sentence he uses to describe Ellsberg is, contextually, supposed to be in contrast with Snowden, and yet the contrast just doesn't pass muster. "Ellsberg was handsome and charismatic" -- Snowden is too. He's also quite eloquent. "He served in the Marine Corps" -- Snowden tried to serve in the military until physical disabilities disqualified him. Then he served in the CIA. Ellsberg has some prestigious academic credentials -- sure, in order to get a good job as a "soft" person you need to have gone to the best schools, be friends with the best people, etc. In technical fields it's more about knowing how to get things done, which Snowden did. I've heard both of them speak, Snowden wins by far when it comes to clear expression of ideas and ability to present a cogent and defensible argument.

The quotes he gives from Ellsberg sound almost identical to things I've heard/read from Snowden.

"had Snowden been a whistle blower in 1967, he would have blown the whistle on Ellsberg" is a sentence which is simply Gladwell just inventing his own reality out of nothing and presenting it as obvious fact. Since it follows and is followed by a bunch of anecdotal stories, the reader tends to accept it. Is it the case? I don't think so. It's pointless to even discuss -- it's impossible to know. Did Snowden blow the whistle on any single person, at all? I can't recall a name being mentioned. Clapper was exposed committing purgery, but he wasn't mentioned by name -- Snowden revealed facts that provided evidence he lied under oath (though of course he was required to do so and I don't know that anyone holds it against him).

I think there is a wide variety of reasonable positions on Snowden, not all of them favoring him, but Gladwell writing a nasty Gladwell-style hit piece against him is a point in his favor.

For comparison, this is Daniel Ellsberg's view on Edward Snowden: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/daniel-ellsberg-nsa-...

A quote from that piece:

Snowden believes that he has done nothing wrong. I agree wholeheartedly. More than 40 years after my unauthorized disclosure of the Pentagon Papers, such leaks remain the lifeblood of a free press and our republic. One lesson of the Pentagon Papers and Snowden’s leaks is simple: secrecy corrupts, just as power corrupts.

Ellsberg's view of Snowden is Gladwell's biggest omission. It's hard to believe that Gladwell researched Ellsberg without coming across this or other similar statements. I therefore assume Gladwell omitted this view on purpose, because it messes with the noble, Harvard grad leaking based on Game Theory, versus the CC dropout lamer hacker doxxing the NSA.

This story oozes elitism. It's also rife with misinformation and misleading tangents. The claim that various government organizations are solely responsible for AIDS elimination and cancer research is ridiculous. How many NGOs research these things? How many private industries? Then to follow that up with the idea that taxpayers foot the bill for the NIH so why not foot the bill for the NSA??? I just don't follow this reasoning.

Does Gladwell really not remember how hard it was to get the US executive branch to take AIDS seriously?


I was astounded at how classist and elitist Gladwell comes across in the article. His point is essentially, because Snowden didn't have a PhD and didn't talk to the right people, the civic value of his leaks are mute.

The difference in Ellsberg's leak and Snowden is that Ellsberg had support within the government (the military) for the public knowing the truth. I'd argue that the difference with Snowden's leaks is that they were inherently against the state and in defense of the constitution. Because the leaks were solely in the interest of citizens, and not the political elite, is the reason he drew the ire of the state.

A sizable share of this looks like namecalling and misinformation.

Mind pointing out specifics of what is "namecalling and misinformation"?

Not the OP, but I would presume they're referring to things a few other commenters have already complained about, e.g. as justcommenting wrote:

"Both were imperfect people in unique situations, but Gladwell's distinction seems to boil down to "Harvard, game theory, & Nobel prize winning PhD advisor" in the case of Ellsberg vs. "community-college dropout" in the case of Snowden, followed by Gladwell falling over himself to redefine "insider" right after spelling it out in detail with the language of class, prestige, and societal privilege."

Or there's the omission that tanderson92 pointed out:

"Gladwell is intentionally deceptive when he refers to Snowden "washing out" of the Reserves. In fact he was discharged after breaking both legs in a training accident. You can debate whether that technically qualifies as washing out or not, but it's quite another to lump that in with the rest of the paragraph and let the reader fill in their own opinions of the events. But perhaps that's the entire point, and part of the reason Gladwell was chosen for this piece.

Eliding certain facts can leave the reader with a distinctly non-factual impression of the man."


Maybe Leaker 2.0 is inferior to 1.0. It perhaps parallels America 2.0 (indefinite detention without trial, torture, and maybe a few other crimes against humanity) being a bit inferior to America 1.0.

I was never a great history student but I am certain America 1.0 isn't as rosey as you paint it. I can think of genocide of indigenous people, slavery, increased use of capital punishment and mob justice tactics like tarring and feathering just off the top of my head depending on when you draw the line.

I imagine the kinds of things you listed are only coming to light now. I can't see what's unique about the people in power now that makes it likely they are the first acting like this, with maybe the exception of surveillance. I think the earlier American government had less problems keeping these activities secret.

However, despite that cynicism that doesn't mean Americans shouldn't fight for those improvements too!

I'm only comparing the political / social situations of Snowden vs. Ellsberg. Not antebellum vs. today. And it's admittedly a distortion.

The article itself goes to great lengths to justify Ellsberg and condemn Snowden, mostly in terms of social contract / status - e.g. comparing Ellsberg "high-born" CV to Snowden's, or Ellsberg's adherence to the unwritten rules of leaker protocol.

They are the first ones to institutionalize these actions. At what point, for example, did a President of this nation adopt torture as a legitimate tool of the state? Sure, people have been tortured in US for ages, but it was not official policy.

That is the difference.

"Some people are property" was the law of the land and you could do whatever you wanted with your property. And that's just for starters. The notion that some fundamental break occurred at 'enhanced interrogation' is ahistorical.

"Some people are property", as abhorrent as it is, is markedly different from "all people are property".

There is certainly a difference between actual chattel slavery and a glib bit of hyperbolic political sloganeering.

While you downplay my mention as "political sloganeering", it's a core assumption of contemporary political philosophy. A specific designation ("chattel") is only required for distinguishing between different classes of people, when only one class is treated as property. Totalitarianism implicitly asserts all people are its to control, and thus needs no formal designation.

Strike as non-responsive?

That seems more applicable to your first response to me. My exact point was that there is a difference (your labeling my phrasing as "political sloganeering" notwithstanding).

It only makes sense to compare current society with historic oppression if you also equate us all with that oppressed class (eg the unoppressed class is what has vanished).

I'm not saying you can't find further examples of historic government overreach against the citizenry, it's just that slavery is not one of them.

edit: Actually scratch that, I see that the comparison was actually being made with torture, which is generally about non-citizens (I hope?).

I was addressing the larger topic of societal surveillance, and that to me seems like a definite new phenomenon rather than something comparable to past oppression. Although I'd say it's been created by technological change rather than political change.

a long and bloviating article, complaining essentially that hackers refuse to wear ties, and that they really should wear ties because the computer engineers of the old days wore ties.

instead of "ties" we're talking about niceties regarding whistleblower behaviors regarding leaks.

my response: the public is kept in the dark intentionally by malicious actors who run their country; leaking is an ethical path to disrupt those malicious actors.

I personally used information in the Snowden documents to highlight a vulnerability in IKE installs that was being actively exploited. It is now dying, and any exploitwd targets provably dried up. The EU found and removed several bugs from its printers because of information found in the Snowden docs.

PRISM was a codename for collection done in accordance with FISA revisions debated at the time. Ultimately the only program changed was the phone records program which was placed on a sounder footing by elected reprentatives.

Lots of programs that were clearly what the NSA should be doing were exposed, and as a result ended. We'll never know the damage done, but it was substantial.

> The EU found and removed several bugs from its printers because of information found in the Snowden docs.

That seems like an excellent outcome, if you don't assume that only the NSA knew about the vulnerability. EU countries are our allies, after all.

In any case, our foreign intelligence would still be intact, if the NSA had restricted itself to that. Once it crossed the line into secret domestic mass surveillance, it made itself fair game for idealistic dissenters.

I assert that the phone records program is not clearly on sounder footing. With the transfer of its maintenance to the telecommunications companies, the option for other government agencies (e.g. FBI, DEA) to query the database was included. The bill essentially increased the breadth of the opportunity for abuse. Should we expect telecoms to pose meaningful resistance to massive records requests?

It's now explicitly authorized by law instead of hiding in the FISA authorization. Our elected representatives wanted it.

> Our elected representatives wanted it.

Indisputable. But did a majority of the citizens want it? Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, whereas "elected representatives" right now represent some minority due to Republican state-level gerrymandering in a lot of states, and Electoral College overrepresenting sparsely-populated western states.

FISA didn't have anything to do with the phone records program. I agree that the majority of Congress wanted it.

Targeted leaking can be justified. Indiscriminately stealing information can not be. I think that's a better summary of the article. Now, there are a lot of subtleties to this, especially in regards to what Snowden actually did. But I don't think it's fair to boil down the article's premise to "hating on hackers."

Your response actually agrees with the author. I don't think the author would deny that leaking can be and is a necessary part of a free society.

You're using biased language. Rephrasing your point to: "Targeted stealing can be justified. Indiscriminate stealing can not be." or perhaps "Targeted leaking can be justified. Indiscriminate leaking can not be".

I think you are missing a point though. Who is best placed to judge what to release? The leaker, or experienced journalists? What if you know there are more abuses but don't have time to individually search through the documents before leaking? Should you only take the ones you have already read, and lose out on revealing other abuses? It's a difficult choice.

From my outside point of view, the government (and often media) errs too much on the side of secrecy so I'm glad to see a whistleblower who is more aggressive with the amount of information they leak.

> You're using biased language. Rephrasing your point to: "Targeted stealing....

and the word "stealing" is also biased language. Leakers don't "steal" anything, they copy information. The original proprietor still has the original information.

I was summarizing the article, that's why I chose that language because it reflected my interpretation of what the author was saying.

But I think a more balanced approach is necessary. The leaker should have at least some knowledge of what they are providing to journalists. This was somewhat addressed in the article because the author seemed to feel that Snowden was opening himself up to attack precisely because he was so indiscriminate. He put a target on his back from not just the US government but also foreign governments who want the information he has.

It doesn't work the other way. If you take only a few documents they simply lie their way through those few leaks and continue on. You need the bulk of the Snowden leaks, and the ability to continually show the government to be lying, to even start the conversation.

As for what's justified, there's no justification for not reporting crimes. There's no difficulty bar where you get to relax even though nothing has changed. You have a legal obligation to report illegal acts and orders even if it's uncomfortable. If the government wants to deter leakers it should start listening to their initial complaints, before these loyal Americans feel the need to go public.

> a more balanced approach is necessary.

Right, when crimes are revealed more of the administration need to go to jail. Hell, it's the military and some should probably be hung for their crimes. As long as the whistleblower is the only one suffering we can be sure the system is failing.

One could argue taxation is "Target Stealing", in that context I would agree it is justified.

I think I could see a few other cases of selective stealing making sense. Stealing the weapon(s) of a person intent on maliciously using it, such as the hundreds of pounds of ammonium nitrate from someone likely to build a bomb.

It seems you just want nice clean black and white rules, and reality does not seem so kind. Let each decide when leaking or stealing is right based on the risks they themselves assume. Let's try to build systems that encourage everyone to make good decisions here so actual secrets (say blueprints of nuclear weapons) aren't leaked and private property is generally not stolen.

Addendum: very disappointed that I got downvoted for giving my on-topic opinion. I thought HN was better than this. Many of you gave your thoughts in the comments, which is great! Debate is far preferable to abusing the voting system.

This is a very curious thing. I read the article, but I'm not exactly clear on why one is great and noble but the other is not. There's some undercurrent that I would paraphrase as 'limiting the harm' of the leaks by being selective, but that's premised on the idea that the public has no right to know and be informed of what its leaders are doing because diplomacy requires hypocrisy? Or something, at least.

I mean, when we get down to this sort of romanticized leaker's code or whatever you what to characterize this as, it seems like truth isn't seen as important, only the leaker's goal and how leaks can be managed via the press. But I would submit that this is no longer functioning very well. I mean, does anyone even believe content-free leaks any more? If you have anonymous officials saying they know things based on circumstantial evidence they won't let you see, can you really believe them knowing it's more than likely part of this gentlemanly leaker's code to plant information in the media?

I mean, just look at this for a recent example which discusses this vis a vis credibility quite extensively: https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2016/12/cias-absence...

The thing is, there's no reason to speculate here. We can infer how Podesta got hacked, based purely on public evidence. There's this nice DKIM-validated email, shortly before the leak ends: https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/emailid/34899

We know it hasn't been modified because it's signed not once but twice, by two separate DKIM keys, specifically: d=1e100.net; s=20130820; (Google) and d=hillaryclinton.com; s=google;

In it is a bit.ly link to a fake Google password phishing page on an email that claims there were hacking attempts on the account. Bit.ly stats placed that link as having been clicked on twice in the relevant time frame. Staff are in that email thread saying it's real and he has to change passwords immediately and offering to help him do so.

There were, of course, also reports that the Clinton's home email server might have been hacked. But they scrubbed that server and the only things that were ever made public were put out by the FBI, redacted from paper copies. It's not clear what was left of it to examine given that what little was turned over was turned over in printed form, preventing any real analysis thereof. I'm not aware of any actual, public leaks of this information, though it is easily conflated with either the Podesta email dump or the DNC leaks available on Wikileaks. Doubly so when you see emails like the one above which was forwarded to Podesta's Gmail account from a private Clinton domain. So it leaked via the Podesta phishing, whereas the DNC leaks were said to be an insider.

One wonders if they ever thought to question Charles Delavan, who told everyone the above phishing email was real? True, this could easily be an innocent (but very harmful) mistake. It looked rather convincing other than being at the wrong domain (I didn't check for JavaScript that might have hidden this, IIRC IE had some exploits of that sort) and the bit.ly link, neither of which is that hard to miss. But it's some wonder we don't see any investigation into bit.ly, the domain it forwards to, etc. in all these talks, but rather lots of chatter from insiders telling us there's a lot of evidence we're not permitted to see.

  I'm not exactly clear on why one is great and noble but 
  the other is not. There's some undercurrent that I would 
  paraphrase as 'limiting the harm' of the leaks by being 
That Snowden and Ellsberg leaked different "types" of data (and to different audiences) is more a commentary on technology and the times than any inherent nobility. Gladwell makes the difference quite clear: where Ellsberg "studied under a Nobel Prize winner, gave career advice to Henry Kissinger", and was a "handsome and charismatic" Marine Corps commander, Snowden was a dropout, a washout, and a technician. Not an "élite" [accent sic].

In other words, it's all about who did the leaking, rather than what they leaked. Where Ellsberg is compared to a graduate student, Snowden is the destructive hacker.

Snowden is "lesser" for his seeming assault on the ivory towers occupied by the likes of Ellsberg.

Secondarily, Ellsberg's leaks documented past failings, not current ones. In that way, perhaps Ellsberg did "less harm", as it was all tinted by the rose glasses of history. Kissenger/Nixon are described as being "delighted" by Ellsberg's leaks, as they highlighted the mistakes of the previous administration.

Ellsberg did also hold back some data he felt was "sensitive", so he gets credit for that, where Snowden does not. (And is described as a "flooder".)

To your point about elitism as the differentiating point between the classes of leaker: consider the paragraph where Gladwell chops Snowden down to size:

> But Snowden did not study under a Nobel Prize winner, or give career advice to the likes of Henry Kissinger. He was a community-college dropout, a member of the murky hacking counterculture. He enlisted in the Army Reserves, and washed out after twenty weeks. He worked at the C.I.A. for a few years and left under a cloud. He learned about the innermost secrets of American intelligence-gathering and policy not because he was personally involved with that intelligence-gathering or policymaking but because he was a technician who helped service the computer systems that managed these things.

Gladwell is intentionally deceptive when he refers to Snowden "washing out" of the Reserves. In fact he was discharged after breaking both legs in a training accident. You can debate whether that technically qualifies as washing out or not, but it's quite another to lump that in with the rest of the paragraph and let the reader fill in their own opinions of the events. But perhaps that's the entire point, and part of the reason Gladwell was chosen for this piece.

Eliding certain facts can leave the reader with a distinctly non-factual impression of the man.


The article you linked just quotes Snowden about the reason for discharge; there is no actual verification for the claim. The U.S. Army has declined to comment, claiming it violates privacy statutes to release Snowden's medical records.

The reason for his discharge isn't publicly known with high certainty. The only public source is Snowden's statement.

(Some background; the 18X, Special Forces option, allows a recruit to be contractually guaranteed a Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) slot. Beforehand, he attends a 14-week combined boot camp/infantry training, and then a 4-week course to prepare him for SFAS. Someone being discharged at the 5-month mark would have, given the fastest training schedule possible, been in SFAS at time of discharge.)

Do we have any particular reason to doubt him on that one?

It should be hard to hide something like double broken legs from parachute training from the others who served with him and his family, friends, and colleagues would surely notice whether or not something big like that ever happened to him.

This doesn't seem like such a difficult thing to fact check if one is willing to do the legwork of talking to known associates from that time.

Not to mention it's such a trivial thing to lie about when you know that your credibility is on the line. You can bet that the NSA checked on this and would have discredited him if he lied at all about his story. Heck, they had to even lie about some of his history to try to discredit him.

Yes, exactly. A few people to say "I served with him, this [happened/never happened]."

That's also a really severe injury, don't they have to report things like that to someone? They probably can't comment on his medical privacy, but I have to wonder if there aren't safety records of some kind from OSHA or whoever?

If the injury occurred during SFAS then there would be no fellow trainees to corroborate the story. Though SFAS has elements of teamwork, large portions of it are individual. Literally the only people to be aware of what happened would be medical or administrative personnel who would be bound by privacy laws.

Or you know, anybody who knew him around that time and remembers him not having broken legs....

But hey, who needs actual falsification to doubt Snowden's story. Let's just malign him because he is uncorroborated and cannot prove his story while in exile.

(By the way, it is possible to medically determine if someone's legs were broken as they claim. Source: medical doctor)

And Barton Gellman at the WaPo confirms it was bilateral tibia stress fractures: https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20160916/16594835541/house...

We have no reason in particular to doubt him, or care at all for that matter. I don't think it can be used as ammunition against the article. Just one unsubstantiated claim against another unsubstantiated claim.

You have no reason to doubt him, and yet you are content to let the article malign him on this point without contest. Strange.

Oh and by the way, I see no actual evidence that Snowden even "washed out" other than his own resume and history....

Nice details, thanks.

Speaking of details, I neglected to cite the bit.ly link. Stats for that can be obtained simply by adding a + sign to the end, as you can see here:


It resolves to this clearly-fake URL:

And regarding the DKIM keys, for anyone here who doesn't know, you take the selector from the DKIM header (view source to get this), which is this part: d=1e100.net; s=20130820;

Then you can plug it into tools like this to actually dump the key: http://mxtoolbox.com/dkim.aspx

It's simply a TEXT record on the relevant DNS server which results in something like this:


  k=rsa; p=MIIBIjANBgkqhkiG9w0BAQEFAAOCAQ8AMIIBCgKCAQEAnOv6+Txyz+SEc7mT719QQtOj6g2MjpErYUGVrRGGc7f5rmE1cRP1lhwx8PVoHOiuRzyok7IqjvAub9kk9fBoE9uXJB1QaRdMnKz7W/UhWemK5TEUgW1xT5qtBfUIpFRL34h6FbHbeysb4szi7aTgerxI15o73cP5BoPVkQj4BQKkfTQYGNH03J5Db9uMqW/NNJ8fKCLKWO5C1e+NQ1lD6uwFCjJ6PWFmAIeUu9+LfYW89Tz1NnwtSkFC96Oky1cmnlBf4dhZ/Up/FMZmB9l7TA6gLEu6JijlDrNmx1o50WADPjjN4rGELLt3VuXn09y2piBPlZPU2SIiDQC0qX0JWQIDAQAB

  v=DKIM1; k=rsa; p=MIGfMA0GCSqGSIb3DQEBAQUAA4GNADCBiQKBgQCJdAYdE2z61YpUMFqFTFJqlFomm7C4Kk97nzJmR4YZuJ8SUy9CF35UVPQzh3EMLhP+yOqEl29Ax2hA/h7vayr/f/a19x2jrFCwxVry+nACH1FVmIwV3b5FCNEkNeAIqjbY8K9PeTmpqNhWDbvXeKgFbIDwhWq0HP2PbySkOe4tTQIDAQAB
It is, of course, important to archive these because you never know when DNS records might go missing, leaving future people unable to validate them unless someone happens to have posted a comment with a copy thereof somewhere.

>Your response actually agrees with the author

the author is a milquetoast analyst paid to be a "thought leader" on this topic...

the thrust of my response is drastically different than his: i suggest that it is time to tear down the surveillance state by any leaks necessary to accomplish that goal.

> milquetoast

I actually had to look that up. Thanks for a new word that I can throw around. I don't think a personal attack on the author helps your argument, but that's your prerogative.

Also, thanks for clarifying your position. I disagree with you on the wholesale dismantling of intelligence agencies (they serve a purpose), but I think we can agree that oversight is needed and necessary perhaps regardless of the exact means.

Tearing down the surveillance state is not the same as dismantling intelligence agencies. One can have intelligence agencies without the culture of surveillance and invasion of privacy that we currently have.

Are you at all certain of this? Our current surveillance state seems to me to be a result of the compartmentization around nuclear weapons in the Manhattan Project. Small expansions from Los Alamos Labs to every thing in the DoD eventually add up to a surveillance state. Every step along the way was logical and consistent and made sense to almost everyone involved.

Los Alamos Labs and the rest of the DOE is not considered by most to be part of the surveillance state. It's not in their mission statement at all. The most overlap there could be the cyberdefense program for energy grids and the NSA facility at ORNL.

I'm actually not sure I understand your point though (honestly!). Even if the surveillance state was justified by those involved along the way, they do have a legitimate purpose that they can be constrained back to and not surveill the american people generally, right? Or is that not what you were saying.

Yes, I understand that DoE and the national labs aren't really part of the surveillance state.

The whole confidential/secret/top secret thing, with compartments pretty much started with Manhattan Project as I understand it. That was in the 1940s, so small changes piling up over time led us to a surveillance state. Each change was justifiable, due to things like exposures of classified info, spying, 9/11, etc, and welcomed due to using classification and surveillance to fix the problems but also to cover up a multitude of sins, from budget overruns to dopey, failed designs to outright fraud. That is, once you've got a thing that you're protecting, then the surveillance state follows, complete with spy services. If semi-appropriate agencies existed before (FBI, OSS, Naval Intelligence) they get re-purposed as surveillance agencies, (OSS -> CIA) and new ones get created (NSA, DIA, NGSIA).

It looks to me like there's a sort of inescapable logic, or emergent behavior that starts with protecting the Manhattan Project, and grows incrementally until you've got a surveillance state.

Gladwell has written a predictable hatchet job of a perceived libertarian hero. Surprised that it was him, not surprised it was done in the NY-anything.

More interesting question is: if one were going to orchestrate a pseudo-intellectual takedown of the forces of popular discontent, who would one go after next?

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