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joshua foust

After failing to board his flight from Moscow to Havana on Monday, Edward Snowden is more or less missing in Russia. But the fallout from his leaking will continue to reverberate for years. The U.S. government, in particular, faces some tough choices for how it can respond to recent breaches of security.

To get an idea of what an internal reaction might look like, we should think about what happened when Wikileaks was busy exposing America's secrets. During the "Cablegate" releases, which basically upended how American statecraft and diplomacy worked around the world, it was clear that the free access to information for cleared employees (feds, soldiers, and contractors alike) would be curtailed.

By and large, that happened: the State Department severely restricted access to its cables and other documents on SIPRNet, the secret network where many classified documents and communications reside. Another consequence of Wikileaks was to restrict the sharing of information between agencies – something identified universally as a critical weakness of the intelligence community.

With Mr. Snowden, we can probably expect a similar response. The McClatchy news agency has already uncovered an Orwellian-sounding initiative, the Insider Threat Program, that applies not just to national security organizations but also to the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration, and the Departments of Education and Agriculture. McClatchy reports that the ITP "shows how millions of federal employees and contractors must watch for 'high-risk persons or behaviors' among co-workers and could face penalties, including criminal charges, for failing to report them. Leaks to the media are equated with espionage."

The irony here is that Washington runs on leaks – there is a sophisticated political economy of leaks where influence (and therefore income) is leveraged through access to privileged or otherwise restricted information. Programs such as the ITP will further privilege acceptable leaks (done at the behest of the White House) and penalize unacceptable leaks (done at someone else's behest). If anything, such a program will make the challenge of unauthorized leaks harder by further driving up the value of leaks.

Within the intelligence community, government agencies will ramp up their monitoring of employees. To specifically address the Snowden leak, IT workers will operate as pairs to make sure no individual rogue operative gets the kind of leeway Mr. Snowden had to leak. The more secretive agencies, like the NSA and CIA, could start implementing more intrusive searches for employees entering and leaving the building.

The counterintelligence teams will almost certainly increase the monitoring of employees' computer activities as well. That means more files will be tagged on the classified networks, the unclassified computers will have keystroke monitors and will cache the pages and emails people send, and so on. Beyond basic privacy issues – which are not invalidated simply because someone signs a Non-Disclosure Agreement promising not to spill secrets – such measures can lead to paranoia and a breakdown of trust inside the system.

But the real kicker will be when this "purge" of improper activities extends to questioning the political and social beliefs of government employees and contractors. People who read alternate or non-mainstream press could be stigmatized, or those who write pro-leaking views in online forums could be flagged for further investigation.

Intelligence agencies thrive on secrecy, and attacking that secrecy sends them into a panic. Their response is, almost inevitably, to double down on the secrecy, thus ratcheting up the stakes of future leaks while also trivializing the need for secrecy to begin with. At some point, this reaction and overreaction will hit a tipping point and cause a catastrophic failure of the system. We don't know yet if we've reached that point, but with each leak – and with each government overreaction – we get closer and closer.

Joshua Foust is a Washington-based analyst who writes about international security and intelligence issues.