November 3, 2013 6:02 pm

Edward Snowden has done us all a favour – even Barack Obama

For a whole generation, the US is coming to stand for Big Brother
Matt Kenyon illustration©Matt Kenyon

Whether he is a scoundrel or a hero, it is clearer all the time that Edward Snowden has done us a good turn. Shortly before Mr Snowden’s first big download in June, President Barack Obama gave a landmark speech in which he defended the US war on terror while pleading for vigilance against its excesses. Franklin Roosevelt once said: “I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it.” Though Mr Obama was talking about America’s counter-terrorist and data intelligence complexes, his speech contained a similar appeal. Shortly afterwards, Mr Snowden took him up on the challenge.

Mr Obama has yet to provide a convincing response – ask Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, or Germany’s Angela Merkel. Mr Snowden may yet force him to. From Mr Obama’s point of view there are silver linings to the National Security Agency bombshells. Something of this kind was going to happen sooner or later. If a high-school dropout could get hold of troves of classified information, so can many others. Bradley Manning, a US army private, had already demonstrated that. US intelligence agencies are meant to be smart. Mr Obama now knows how dumb they can be.

Mr Snowden has also reminded us that there is more at stake over America’s sprawling data intelligence complex than hunting terrorists. Washington has done a good job of preventing big attacks on the US homeland since the terror attacks of September 2001. Both George W Bush and Barack Obama deserve credit. Both also deserve blame for having over-learned the lessons of 9/11. US intelligence does not have a particularly stellar history. It has a tendency to bungle covert action and to miss what is coming – from the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba to the World Trade Center attacks. There is also its extraordinary litany of domestic abuses exposed by the Church committee in the 1970s.

In light of what Mr Snowden has taught us about the rapid growth of the NSA in the past few years, it is worth rereading the report of the 9/11 Commission – the best on intelligence failure yet written. The report blamed the failure to foresee the World Trade Center attacks on “stovepiping” between US agencies. Because of turf protection, nobody was in a position to “connect the dots” between fragmentary clues about flight schools, Saudi visas and so on.

A decade later it is plain that US intelligence overcorrected for 9/11. The days of stovepiping are long gone. Nowadays anyone can download enough classified information to construct Tolstoyan epics about US espionage. Here too, Mr Snowden’s actions have been helpful.

Most of all, Mr Snowden has reminded us that the biggest lesson from 9/11 remains unaddressed. The report said intellectual failure was the ultimate culprit in missing the Twin Towers attacks and stressed the need to “routinise, even bureaucratise, the use of the imagination”. Mr Obama needs no imagination to know how tarnished America’s brand now is. Some of it comes from the recent Washington shutdown and default crisis. But the NSA revelations have added mistrust to complaints about US incompetence. Corrosion of trust between allies and between governments and citizens can breed all sorts of unforeseen consequences. It is the right moment for Mr Obama to start a larger debate about US intelligence.

At some point in the near future he is likely to agree to a weaker version of the code of conduct among allies that exists between the “five eyes” of English-speaking nations. It will be a polite fiction but co-operation will not have been seriously impaired. Neither side of the Atlantic is likely to curtail actual intelligence gathering. And in many cases they should not. Tapping the phones of leaders such as Ms Merkel has clearly boomeranged – as has the NSA’s siphoning of data from nodal points at the leading US data companies. But eavesdropping on Pakistan’s military should continue to be a no-brainer.

Mr Snowden has also forced us to confront the larger question of US power in a changing world. For all America’s military weight, hard power gets fewer bangs for its buck nowadays. The fate of a US-led world in the coming decades will probably not be decided by a military clash with another large power. It is more likely to be settled by the quality of America’s economy and democracy. For most people around the world who are older than 30, the US is still chiefly seen through those prisms. But, for a whole generation beneath them, it is coming to stand for Big Brother – and not necessarily a benign one. The damage to US soft power – and the weight it lends to those who want to nationalise data storage and balkanise the internet – should not be overlooked.

Why, then, does Mr Obama want to put Mr Snowden behind bars?

The question of Mr Snowden’s motives is secondary. He may be a criminal, or a saint. I suspect he had good reasons. At minimum he will pay for his sins with a lifetime of looking over his shoulder. In the meantime, the rest of us are far more educated than before about how much privacy we have lost and how rapidly. We are all Angela Merkel now.

Mr Obama is enraged and embarrassed by the hammer blows of one giant disclosure after another. But the fallout has given him the possibility of answering his own plea for greater accountability. Back in May, he issued a thinly coded cry for help to rein in the growing US shadow state. We should be grateful that Mr Snowden came forward.

edward.luce@ft.com

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