the laughing cloud

Snowden blew it.

I haven’t posted for a while but my buddy Danny asked me my opinion on the “NSA Leaker”, Edward Snowden.

I had to pause and think a bit.  You see, I do the same type of work as Mr Snowden did.   I’ve been doing Sys Admin work for years and years; basically, I’m the god of the machine.  I can do all, see all, read all, and delete all.  I can read all your mail or files (unless you encrypt them).  I can look at all the pictures posted on my machines.  And under normal circumstances, I don’t do any of these things because it’s not nice.  Now, there may be circumstances where I have no choice – where the action of a user is causing harm to the systems – then I can go look because I’m fixing a problem.

So Snowden looked.  And found some really interesting stuff.  And disclosed it.

So what do I think of Snowden?


I’m old enough to remember Watergate.  Wanna learn how to leak?  Take a lesson from Watergate.  The quick version is that an inside source nicknamed “Deep Throat” passed along information about the Republican break in (and attempted coverup of)  the Democratic Party headquarters to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post who told the world in their book “All the President’s Men”.  These leaks happened periodically – and everyone was glued to their seats – waiting to see what got disclosed.

Ultimately, President Richard Nixon resigned and  White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, G. Gordon Liddy, Egil Krogh, White House Counsels Charles Colson and John Dean, and presidential adviser John Ehrlichman all went to jail.  Yes, that’s right.  The President resigned and Bad guys in government went to jail.

And maybe it’s because Deep Throat Kept His Mouth Shut.  He never talked.  Neither did Woodward or Bernstein. 30 years later Vanity Fair outed him.  Those are the selfless actions of a patriot; that guy was a hero.  It was Mark Felt, Associate Director of the FBI.

Unlike Mr. Snowden… who managed to keep his mouth shut for 30 minutes… until “NSA Whistleblower Outs Himself”

At which point all the Bad Things (TM) the government’s been doing became completely overshadowed by the existence of Mr. Snowden.   Now it’s just a big game of “Where’s Waldo”, and “Where’s Waldo gonna get asylum?”

By disclosing his identity, the entire discussion has changed.  Snowden is now the main attraction, and not the abusive actions of the government he revealed.

There’s a pattern here.  Wikileaks was wildly effective until Julian Assange revealed his identity – now it’s about Julian.

You blew it Ed.  You know better.  You’re an admin for the NSA.. you know how to be anonymous.  And reporters still know how to break stories and keep their mouths shut.

We’d have been glued to the real story, and you’d have been a legend.



14 comments for “Snowden blew it.

  1. Dylan
    July 13, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    moreover, who the fuck are the anonymous sources telling them this?
    those people should be shot in the balls.

    It was against his beliefs to be anonymus, but you’re right, the story is more about him now.

  2. unless
    July 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Unless of course you consider there was no pervasive spy-state in place during Watergate. No government spy agencies to tap non-existent email, cell, sms, chat room. Sure, phone tapping was the bees knees, but comparing Snowden’s political climate to the political climate of Watergate is simply ridiculous.

    I’m not saying Snowden did it right, but marking his actions as “putzy” based on how watergate went down is equally putzy.

    • admin
      July 14, 2013 at 7:47 am

      No pervasive spy state when you have the President of the United States bugging the opposition party? Or J. Edgar Hoover and his secret files? Jeez. Our dependence on technology just makes it way easier to spy now.

  3. Hadi
    July 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    You don’t know the full picture. Maybe he was feared for his life and NSA already knew who leaked it. It could be because everyone was suspicious of credibility of leaks. If you recall, every company denied it.

    Snowden act was selfless. He revealed his identity. He proved leaks are true. It wa ultimate sacrifice. His life will never be the same. And now this is what you had to say about him

  4. Linda M
    July 13, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    And yet here you are, contributing yet another post about Snowden to the pile, rather than his leaks.

  5. BB
    July 13, 2013 at 9:10 pm


  6. Tim
    July 13, 2013 at 11:29 pm

    Reading all the news and debate going on about PRISM on HN and other sites I don’t have the impression that even half of the time it’s about the whereabouts of Snowden. I think it’s a separate discussion that’s going on besides the security/democracy debate that started thanks to his revelations.

  7. July 14, 2013 at 1:46 am


    First, it does not appear that you “a sysadmin” in the sense that someone working for the NSA, BBN Planet, or UC Berkeley is a sysadmin. Maybe I’m wrong. But the fact that you administer systems, even for clients, does not make you “a sysadmin.”

    Next, you entirely ignore than one reason you don’t snoop on your clients email and other private communications, is that doing so is a felony under the Electronic Communications and Privacy Act. Your “common sense” rationale goes out the window at that point.

    Finally, you entirely ignore that the situations are not the same. Outside McClatchey, the Press has remained quiet and spouted the Adminstration lines for the past decade. Had Snowden not “outed” himself, unlike Deep Throat, it is entirely possible that these issues would be much, much less prominent.

    Putz? That’s an ad hominem attack, and a fallacy, in the way you’re using it.

    • admin
      July 14, 2013 at 7:44 am

      Working with Unix since 1983 as a sysadmin, makes me a sysadmin; including for governments, telcos and the like… if you want the gory details :)

      As for the legalities – aside from predating the ECPA and being in Canada, you’re right.

      And I disagree that the situations aren’t the same. See how much attention Wikileaks was getting pre-Assange outing himself, although he kept his identity hidden for a relatively long time… a good story remains a good story.

      And the results in both cases have been remarkably similar – it’s now about the leakers and not the leaks; Snowden stuck in an airport and Assange in an embassy… pretty well the best possible case for the government.

      Anonymity requires humility – the ability to place “principles above personalities”. The lure of instant fame is tough to resist. Those with that rare ability are orders of magnitude more effective.

      Imagine the state the NSA would be in if Snowden were still anonymous?

      • July 18, 2013 at 10:01 pm

        OK, you’ve proved your sysadmin creds :).

        I still think this is open for argument. Snowden’s comments have gone both ways, with some being pulled out of context to show he’s immature etc. Others have seemed very thoughtful and sincere.

        The core hypothetical is, what would have happened if he didn’t reveal his identity? Would this have gotten as much attention from Press alone? I can’t answer that conclusively, of course.

        Before ECPA, of course, my perception is that sysadmins had more committment to privacy, as a matter of professionalism. At least at BBN and UCB as I saw it, FWIW.

        Ed below, makes a similar series of points.

  8. Ed
    July 14, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    Each individual you compare faced radically different circumstances. Deep Throat was an insider in a secure (non-political) potion who had access to a continuing stream of inside information as long as he kept his identity secret, and who found intermediaries (Woodward and Bernstein) who were willing and able to maintain his cover. Assange maintained secrecy until he needed to get asylum as a political refugee before being arrested on a (supposedly) unrelated morals charge. Snowden did not have a secure position (he was a contractor) and did not find an intermediary. Whether that was because of his own particular brand of naivete (you can call it ‘being a putz’ if you want) or because of some actual constraint in his circumstances (how long was he going to be in position? How long before the information was buried too deep to confirm?) is probably less important than what his choice implies about the changing capabilities of investigative media to inform citizens about overreach by the powerful.

  9. Ed
    July 14, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    Edit: “…secure (non-political) **position**…”


  10. July 15, 2013 at 12:57 am

    Following from Ed’s comment above… and posted here on behalf of ‘a friend’….

    An interesting POV, but I don’t know if the two things, Watergate and disclosure of NSA surveillance, are comparable to each other. Felt (Deep throat) kept his mouth shut for 30 years for good reason, he was still subject to prosecution. He was not a crusader for privacy.

    Indeed, “Felt oversaw operation COINTELPRO during a controversial period in the FBI’s history. … Felt, along with Edward S. Miller, authorized FBI agents to break into homes secretly in 1972 and 1973, without a search warrant, on nine separate occasions.”

    Felt was prosecuted for the operation, he was found guilty and fined – he appealed and was eventually pardoned by Reagan.

    Speculation as to Felt’s motivation [for Watergate] centers around personal and professional reasons – he had been passed over for promotion by Nixon to fill Hoover’s vacant Director FBI chair, as well as the greed of his family to cash in on the inevitable book deals.

    i.e. “Ralph de Toledano, who co-wrote Felt’s 1979 memoir [prior to disclosure] said Mark Felt Jr. approached him in 2004 to buy Toledano’s half of the copyright. Toledano agreed to sell but was never paid and attempted to rescind the deal, threatening legal action. A few days before the Vanity Fair article was released, Toledano finally received a check. He later said: “I had been gloriously and illegally deceived, and Deep Throat was, in characteristic style, back in business — which given his history of betrayal, was par for the course.[81]””

    There’s no reason to believe Felt was a hero motivated by anything noble. Covert surveillance operations are a dirty business, betrayal is routine, nothing is as it seems – often to the players themselves.

    No one would know the scope of NSA’s surveillance without the confirmation provided by Snowden, and unlike Felt, as far as I know, Snowden has not lied to cover up his complicity, nor hidden his motives. As a result, Snowden is subject to the full weight of government retaliation by the most powerful nation on earth, in real time. Frankly, it’s unlikely that Snowden will lead a long life charmed by luxury, no matter where he comes to rest. (I certainly would not place my life at the mercy of Russian … or any other government’s … political whim. He’ll always be a chip to flip on the table as required.)

    • admin
      July 15, 2013 at 3:20 am

      Tony, thank your friend; fascinating.

      It would appear that Snowden didn’t really “think things through”; I can’t see intentionally wanting to live in the Moscow airport… and possibly from inside of a server room in the great bureaucracy of the NSA it may have appeared less dangerous that it really is.

      As for the scope of NSA surveillance – it’s certainly been implied for a very long time – Room 641a being a prime example as well as the Utah Data Center. I suspect the blowback might come more from annoyed allied governments than anything domestic.

      And not too sure we’ll ever get the surveillance genie back in the bottle.

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