Sunday, August 18, 2013

Edward Snowden: A different possible interpretation of his actions

This piece models how the same facts can be interpreted in very different ways, and is also something of a parody of conspiracy theory but with the twist that the hypothetical conspiracy (which is admittedly unlikely) is by the good guys and for a legitimate purpose. 

Edward Snowden:   A  different possible interpretation of his actions

Decades ago I read a novel,  Typewriter in the Sky,  by L. Ron Hubbard (who later founded “Dianetics”).  I remember this scifi novel only dimly—and won’t read it again to refresh my memory. Reading it once was bad enough!  But the general idea was that its protagonist falls into a  universe recognizably created by a work of fiction being written by a friend who is a very bad novelist.  Our hero—who can hear a typewriter clacking away up in the sky---is horrified, since he knows how his friend’s mind works and realizes he is in for a terrible fate.

I recalled this novel recently while thinking about the Snowden affair.  It seems to me that the Snowden story looks like a very bad novel..  

Why, for example,  would American authorities make such a fuss about Edward Snowden’s revelations?  The NSA data-mining of connections between phone numbers, after all,  is just taking common sense advantage of opportunities presented by modern computers.  Since the mining does not capture the contents of the communications flowing through the telephone networks,  it does not violate anybody’s privacy in those communications.

Why did Chinese authorities with influence in Hong Kong allow someone supposedly wanted by China’s leading trade partner and implicit ally to fly off to Moscow, and why are Russian authorities being so cagey about Snowden?   

To make sense of the Snowden affair might be easier if we look at it from a very different angle.  No doubt this interpretation is improbable,  but even its bare possibility is worth thinking about:  what if Snowden is loyally playing the leading role in a scenario staged to bag a large number of would-be terrorists?

In this scenario,  Snowden made his revelations about NSA data mining,  not in defiance of our government,  but at its behest.  In this scenario his flight to Hong Kong and then to Moscow and seeking political asylum are merely a magnificent publicity stunt.  The goal of the stunt would be draw attention to his revelations and thereby scare terrorists into changing how they communicate.  Such changes,  which NSA computers could spot,  might identify plotters who otherwise could have  avoided detection.   

At the very least this plot might frighten some terrorists into using less efficient methods of communicating with each other, a goal worthwhile in itself.    

If Snowden’s “leaks” were actually part of an official operation,  we would want to commend him if the true story can ever be told.  So perhaps we should avoid rushing to judgment about him.

It would be interesting to know how China and Russia would fit into this scenario.  Are they in the dark about Snowden,  or are they knowingly playing their own part in the operation?  After all,  Russia and China have legitimate concerns about terrorism and could have good reasons to cooperate with us.

Of course such a plot would be a massive deception,  but deception in policy matters is not always bad.  The successful landings in Normandy on D-Day,  for example,  were helped by elaborate (and successful) efforts to bamboozle the Nazis into thinking the attack was going to be elsewhere. 

Readers may wonder if publishing speculation about a plot might sabotage the plot, if one actually exists.  But by now any terrorist changes in communication patterns stimulated by Snowden’s revelations—whether or not there was a plot--- will already have happened and the NSA computers will have safely recorded all the dots that need to be connected.  

Plot or no plot,  I wish them luck in connecting those dots.

This piece has run in the Oregonian and the (Adrian, Michigan) Daily Telegram.

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