Collateral Damage

Collateral damage is a military term of art, a shorthand way of referring to unintentional damage inflicted during military operations. So, a taliban is in the next room, shooting at you, you throw in a grenade, and, in addition to killing the taliban you also set fire to the wallpaper. A machine gun is set up inside a compound, you drop a bomb on it, and you also kill the owner of the house and his family. The Al Qaida number-two-man in Afghanistan is attending a meeting, you hit it with a Predator drone, and find out later it was a wedding party and you now have two clans and fifty cousins declaring blood-fued -feud against the US. Collateral damage, as horrific as it can be, is accepted under the laws of war, as an inescapable side effect of combat operations. The requirement is that you take reasonable precautions to minimize it, and that the level of damage is commensurate with the objective of the action.

In 2013, Edward Snowden decided that many actions of the US government and the Intelligence Community were illegal and unconstitutional, and that the only way to bring those crimes to light was to release a large number of documents for public scrutiny. Although the government has so-far successfully prevented a wholesale judicial review of their practices, some of them have been declared unconstitutional (although not by the Supreme Court), and others have been changed — a tacit admission that they were impermissible under US law. This is good. American government actions are well into the shadowy corners of despotism, and sunlight is the best way to cleanse those corners.

Snowden claimed that he made a serious effort to minimize the collateral damage of the documents, and that he gave them only to western journalists. However, in addition to causing public, congressional, and judicial review, the revelations have had, or are purported to have had, a harmful effect on other parts of the US. Things like loss of sales for cloud computing companies, increased counterintelligence operations against the US by the allies we spied on, and admittedly dubious claims of damage to US national security.  By my reading of the situation, this counts as acceptable levels of collateral damage, given that the counter-terrorist mission of NSA has never done squat to protect us.

There’s a point to this discussion. Snowden was incensed that we spied on Americans, and others, and his actions may have made it harder to spy on those others, any others. And it may well be that various foreign governments will now take the steps they should have taken years ago (’cause we aren’t the only ones with good collection systems), and make it harder to do our collection against them, and other others. If NSA had not been so secretive, if they had been more sensitive to the issues of Constitutional law, if they had asked their lawyers “what can we do to stay within the law” rather than “what can we do to get around this pesky law”, then they might not have provoked Snowden, and they might not have suffered so much collateral damage.

The NSA tells no tale; but even as bulk collection was the foundation of their wealth, so also it was their destruction: they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Despot’s Bane.’ #MT: Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring

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