snowdenscreensWhat are the differences between Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, and Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers back in 1971? Not much, really, but the distinctions that do exist are key:

  1. 1.  Ellsberg, a true product of the establishment he was undermining, had the New York Times and the Washington Post simultaneously releasing in its entirety all that he had to share, while Snowden is dribbling his news through The Guardian and the Post, with neither paper taking much of a legal or ethical stand behind him, much less printing verbatim thousands of pages of classified material as happened with the Ellsberg case in the early 70s. If Snowden is the Ellsberg of this century, he’s Ellsberg on Twitter.
  2. Ellsberg stayed to face his accusers and Snowden ran — his trips to Hong Kong, Moscow, and who-knows-where taking over from the leaks, themselves, as the news story. His running is rationalized by saying it needs to happen in order to keep releasing information, but why not — like Ellsberg — just dump it all at once?
  3. Ellsberg released actual news, while so far Snowden has simply confirmed stories long in circulation. A pure espionage conviction would be difficult at this point, the news is so thin.

Clearly Daniel Ellsberg was a lot classier in his day than Edward Snowden is today. And that’s a big part of the problem, both with this story and the current intelligence fiasco that Snowden describes: too many cowboys.

9/11, as I wrote at the time, opened the national checkbook to over-react and over-spend on intelligence. As a result what we as a nation are doing is recording every piece of data we can get. We say we are doing so to detect and prevent terrorist acts but more properly our agencies expect to use the data for post-event analysis — going back and figuring out what happened just as law enforcement did after the Boston Marathon blasts.

The biggest problem with these programs (there are many) is that we inevitably play fast-and-loose with the data, which is exactly one of the tidbits dropped by Edward Snowden. Feds and fed contractors are every day looking at things like their own lovers and celebrities they know they aren’t supposed to check on, but what the heck? And the FISA Court? It can’t take action against something it knows nothing about.

When I started working on this column my idea was to look at Snowden from a Human Resources perspective. If government and contractor HR were better, for example, Snowden would never have been hired or he would have been better indoctrinated and never squealed. Snowden is an HR nightmare.

But having talked to a couple really good HR people, I think the Snowden problem goes far beyond better filtering and training to an underlying paradox that I’m sure bedevils every administration, each one suffering more than the one before it as technology further infiltrates our lives.

Nothing is as it seems, you see, so every innocent (and that’s where we all begin) is inevitably disappointed and then corrupted by the realities of public service.

President Obama campaigned in 2008 as an outsider who was going to change things but quickly became an insider who didn’t change all that much, presumably because he came to see the nuances and shades of gray where on the campaign trail things had seemed so black and white. But when that shift happened from black-and-white to gray, someone forgot to send a memo to the Edward Snowdens, who were expected to just follow orders and comply. But this is a generation that doesn’t like to follow orders and comply.

Sitting as he did on the periphery of empire, Snowden and his concerns were not only ignored, they were unknown, and for an intelligence agency to not even know it had an employee ready to blow is especially damning.

So what happens now? The story devolves into soap opera as Snowden seeks refuge as in a Faulkner novel. Maybe he releases a further bombshell or two, maybe he doesn’t. But the circumstances strongly suggest that we’ll see more Edward Snowdens in the future, because little or nothing seems to be happening to fix the underlying problems.

Those problems, in addition to there being too many cowboys, are that all the incentives in place only make things worse, not better. Snowden was a contractor, for example. Why not a government employee? Because government salary limits didn’t allowed hiring six-figure GED’s like Snowden. So do we bring it all in-house? Impossible for this same reason unless we redefine being a public servant to something more like the Greek model where government employees made significantly more money than their private sector equivalents.

How well would that go over right now with Congress?

We could give all the work to the military. The NSA, after all, is a military organization. That would be adding even more cowboys and dubious on Constitutional grounds, too.

The most likely answer here is that nothing will really happen, nothing will change, which means we’ll have more Edward Snowdens down the road and more nasty revelations about our government. And I take some solace in this, because such dysfunctional behavior acts as a check and balance on our government’s paranoia and over-ambition until that pendulum begins to shift in the other direction.

No matter what happens with Edward Snowden or what further information he reveals, there is far more yet to come.