The True Cost of the Snowden Revelations

More words have been spilled about the Snowden affair than almost any other story of recent years. The fall-out may disappear from the daily papers for weeks at a time, but on the internet in particular debates on ‘government spying’ and the leaking of government secrets, it has probably exceeded any other story of our time.

One reason is that the idea of being “spied upon” by the government is not only a subject which seems plausible to people who spend their life on the internet, but is an idea that flatters them. The idea that the U.S. or British government is specifically trying to find out what you have written in an email to your mother is a trend which plays not just into the conspiratorial trends of our time but also into its narcissism. Here, just maybe, is a story that can plausibly be said to be all about “me, me, me.”

It is also a subject which in a misreported form has united opinion on the political right and left. Libertarian right-wingers among others have seen the Snowden revelations as a demonstration of government over-reach, and many seem intent on destroying the national security infrastructure of the world’s leading democracies in order to win their arguments.

In fact, as Surveillance After Snowden: Effective Espionage in an Age of Transparency (released this week by The Henry Jackson Society) shows, there has been a massive amount of public misunderstanding about what the Snowden revelations actually contained. And more significantly – as our report shows for the first time – the whole affair has comprised a colossal own-goal at a critically important juncture.

The advantage in signals intelligence enjoyed by the “five eyes” has been severely damaged by this affair. Many observers have commented that the Snowden affair could have a deleterious effect on our critical security infrastructure, but this week’s new HJS report demonstrates for the first time just how serious it is, with specific examples and case studies. The analysis, which is based partly on interviews with leading practitioners, reveals how terrorist groups, in the wake of the Snowden revelations, have changed their behaviour including their communication methods. It shows how the affair has damaged British and American security capabilities overseas. And it shows how the leaks have perhaps irrevocably damaged the hitherto vital relationship between communication service providers and the state.

All these relations, and all these capabilities, are vital for ensuring the safety and security of citizens in our countries. There are debates to be had about privacy and excessive surveillance and we have had that debate feverishly, and fairly un-informatively, over the last several years. But a more useful debate to now have is over what citizens ought to accept needs to be done in order not just to ensure their own security but to ensure the ongoing security of our societies in an increasingly dangerous era.



If there is one thing we can all agree about in the Middle East, it’s that the so-called war against the Islamic State (IS) is not going well.

Limited international coalition airstrikes have produced very limited results. IS may well have been pinned back in certain areas, but as the twin captures of Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq have shown, the terrorists remain a potent force still capable of taking the offensive. This is bad news for those Syrians and Iraqis already chafing under the burden of brutal IS rule, as well as for those of us in the West worried about how a ragtag band of criminals fending off our military might may well inspire more Western jihadists to join their ranks.

I cite military might, but the reality is vastly different. For we are treating the war against IS as nothing more than a minor distraction from the running down of our armed forces and intent to use them. Britain has the unenviable record of participating in an average of under one air strike a day in Iraq. We are not even allowed to be engaged in Syria, so fearful are we of isolationist attitudes among our Members of Parliament. The new intake of MPs has yet to be tested on this issue, but it is safe to say there is no clamour for increased intervention against this menace. Meanwhile, we hear rumours of further cuts to our already diminished armed forces.

The U.S. is in no better a situation. In the midst of its own armed forces reduction, President Obama was reportedly agonising this week over whether to introduce the very modest element of US ground target spotters to assist in air softies against the enemy. Target spotters are rather useful in situations where the terrain means that enemies can hide and correspondingly avoid being engaged. Yet even this basic requirement for limited air warfare seems beyond the desire of the US President to accede to, so transfixed he is with terror at the idea of ground troops returning to Iraq.

As long as this sad state of affairs continues, IS will have free reign to maraud and murder. We still have the power to change this horrific equation. Can we muster the will to use it?

Dr Alan Mendoza is Executive Director of The Henry Jackson Society

Follow Alan on Twitter: @AlanMendoza

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