The tragic death of reporter Michael Hastings last week, and the flight of NSA leader Edward Snowden this week, suggest — crudely but effectively — why the center of U.S. national-security strategy is weakening.
Hastings’ takedown of Army General Stanley McChrystal in the pages of Rolling Stone in 2010 was possible because of two things:
— U.S. citizens had become weary of the war in Afghanistan after nine years (democracies are like that). They largely viewed the spat between McChrystal and Obama, as portrayed by Hastings, as a sideshow to their lives. Hastings painted the picture, but the brush, canvas and oils had been provided by McChrystal and his staff.
— The general’s Achilles’ heel was allowing his staff to cozy up to a reporter they didn’t know. This is different than “speaking truth to power.” Only the naive could be surprised by sharp, largely anonymous, criticism of one’s overlords, whether in war, politics, journalism or one’s own family. It’s called “human nature,” and it always comes as a surprise when human nature surprises its chroniclers.
In much the same way, Snowden’s international hop-scotching should give Americans pause. True, there has always been a constellation of nations eager to thumb its collective nose at the U.S.
But the Snowden case seems different. Here, we have a former superpower rival, Russia, and a prospective superpower rival, China, doing the thumbing. Snowden plainly and unilaterally betrayed his nation and his oath. But what’s interesting is how much of the world is either yawning, or offering Snowden succor.
On Sunday, Army General Keith Alexander, the NSA director, told ABC that Snowden has done “irreversible and significant damage” to U.S. national security.
In an interview published Monday, Snowden said he sought a job three months ago with Booz Allen Hamilton so he could plumb the contractor’s NSA-related work.
A couple of things worth noting here:
— Only by convincing the world of Snowden’s dastardliness – Sunday’s appearance on This Week with George Stephanopoulos marked Alexander’s first Sunday-show gig, which is a strange move for an outfit long described as No Such Agency – can the government maintain that the intelligence-industrial complex is performing immensely vital work.
— Yet the realization that a high-school dropout could apparently derail a key U.S. intelligence effort suggests the folks who put it together did so blind to such single-point failures. If they can’t get that right (“We are now putting in place…a two-man rule,” Alexander noted), one has to wonder what other fundamental fubars are salted into the mix.
The huge military-intelligence apparatus the nation has assembled post-9/11 is akin to a house of cards. All it takes is a Joker like Snowden, or a reporter like Hastings, to bring major chunks of it crashing down.