Sometimes the news makes me all counterfactually itchy, or, uh, it makes me itchy to explore a counterfactual. In the case of Edward Snowden, it makes me especially itchy. The discussion so far is defined by those who say Snowden’s revelations are necessary, and his sacrifice is heroic, and those who say that his revelations have damaged our intelligence agencies, and his actions are treasonous. But who among us is saying that his actions have damaged our intelligence agencies and made us safer?
I am. Imagine (counterfactual time) that 9/11 had been prevented. Obviously, the Patriot act and the setting up of special courts would not have ensued, and we wouldn’t have the Snowden revelations.So it is worth asking: would the prevention of 9/11 been brought about by less transparency about what the executive branch and the intelligence agencies were up to, or more?
Now, there is a large answer to this, in which one tediously goes over the history of the CIA and the Middle East, exploring the construction of the jihadist networks in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1980s. Then one shoots forward to 2001 and the peculiar way that intelligence agencies and their executive branch managers (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice et al) bungled the information that they had, which would have led to rounding up the 19 hijackers before they were even trained in how to fly a plane, but not to land one. Or there is a short answer to this: suppose a Snowden figure had gotten hold of the briefing papers Bush was given in August 2001, which famously reported that Osama bin Laden was planning on attacking America, and had given them to the papers – and the papers had published them. Of all the ways in which Mohammed Atta could have been thwarted, in my opinion, this would have been the single most efficient one. It would have been impossible for Bush not to alert the Transportation secretary, and it would have been unlikely that the suspicious behavior of the hijacking crew would have passed unnoticed.
What we should be asking is: why can’t we have more Edward Snowdens?