Barack Obama started his tour of Africa today, but in one way it’s like he never left Washington. The big news from his first stop doesn’t concern American policy on that continent but instead the former intelligence worker who left the US and is currently in Moscow. Pressed on what he would do to get Edward Snowden in custody, Obama scoffed at the suggestion of cutting a deal with Vladimir Putin or in using military force to grab the “hacker”:
President Obama said Thursday he has not gotten personally involved in the case of Ed Snowden, because he expects other countries to “abide by international law” and not provide harbor to a fugitive. At the same time, he indicated he does not plan to go to extraordinary lengths to capture the NSA leaker, saying: “No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker.”
As Republican lawmakers urge Obama to get tough with Russia as it denies extradition requests, Obama said he has not directly spoken with Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping. He flashed some annoyance as he declared he has not called either leader because “I shouldn’t have to.”
He noted that the U.S. does “a whole lot of business” with both countries, and said he doesn’t want to be in a position where he’s “wheeling and dealing and trading” just to “get a guy extradited.”
The president suggested this should have been a routine bit of business for either leader, so he decided not to get personally involved.
“Hacker”? ABC’s Jonathan Karl wondered about the use of that word:
Interesting that President Obama calls Snowden "a hacker" — Is that what he is?
— Jonathan Karl (@jonkarl) June 27, 2013
Actually, no. A hacker would have used technical knowledge to gain access to data to which he’d normally not have been granted access. The US government cleared Snowden to access this data, even if it was just to work on the technical issues involved. Booz Allen Hamilton hired him, but it was the government that cleared him. The more accurate term would be “leaker,” but “thief” also works, even if one is sympathetic to Snowden’s motives.
Obama told the press, which finally had a chance to ask the President about this topic only after leaving the US, that most of the potential damage has been done already with Snowden. If the NSA and BAH know what else Snowden has, either Obama isn’t worried about it, or perhaps hasn’t been fully briefed. The tone of his comments was clearly intended to minimize Snowden and his revelations, dismissing him as little more than a young “hacker” instead of someone who did deep damage to national security.
The intel community hasn’t gotten that memo, though:
U.S. intelligence sources say there have already been consequences to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden’s actions, and it is changing the way terrorists do business. …
Intelligence sources say al Qaeda and other terror groups are already taking advantage of the leaks by avoiding Internet sites terrorists now know the NSA is monitoring.
Philip Mudd, a former CIA analyst, said that when U.S. sources and methods are revealed terrorists, like the former head of al Qaeda, change how they communicate. Mudd said, “Bin Laden was tipped off that we had his satellite phone, and he went off the net.”
But the U.S. also alters its security measures in response to changing terrorist tactics. “In the short term, there is going to be a problem because they’re going to read the newspapers, they are going to study up, and they’re going to change activity,” Mudd said. “But in the long term, I think the U.S. intelligence community is going to have the strategic advantage. We’ll find them, and we’ll hunt them down.”
The bin Laden leak was a lot more specific, though. While the revelations from Snowden might have terrorists rethinking their use of Internet services — especially Google and the other companies named in the initial leak — the worst part of the story for American privacy is also the worst part of it for terrorists’ ability to adjust. The collection is so broad that adjustment may not be possible without bailing out of the Internet altogether, and that will make it easier to find people falling back to older forms of communication, such as couriers and hard-copy mail. And even the transition might force terrorists out into the open while they establish those replacement lines of communication.