Aside from questions about the legality, constitutionality, ethical propriety and necessity of the federal government’s intrusion into the Internet and phone records of untold millions of Americans, two things about the recent National Security Agency controversy seem abundantly clear: The intelligence community — our first line of defense against faceless terrorists — needs less reliance on outside contractors and far better vetting of those it does hire.
It seems appropriate to ask how Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old high school dropout, has a resume that would allow him to make a reported $122,000 a year from Booz Allen Hamilton, a Virginia consulting firm, at a time when tens of thousands of college graduates with good academic records are either going back to school or waiting tables to make ends meet.
Depending on one’s point of view, Snowden either courageously blew the whistle or traitorously disclosed the scope of the nation’s eavesdropping activities. Whether he was one of those unschooled geniuses who can bypass the normal path to fame and fortune is yet to be determined. To his apparent thinking, he chose to be a martyr for liberty — and I’m certain others think him so. There is, after all, a touch of messianic fervor in most who follow this road.
The electronic age has produced any number of billionaires who chose to skip the process of building their empires in the usual fashion — extensive education and experience. Normally, they are college dropouts who had a better idea. Bill Gates comes to mind, as does Mark Zuckerberg, although there are still questions about whether the idea for the social network Facebook was strictly his. And in the early 20th century, when relatively few Americans attended college and many didn’t complete secondary education, there were mechanical geniuses like Henry Ford and the Wright brothers.
Snowden doesn’t fall into that category — at least I don’t think so. Where does he belong? His girlfriend, through her Internet ramblings, seems as baffled about his place in the social structure as anyone. According to The Washington Post, in one of her last postings, she told of having to scheme to get him on a hike with friends in Hawaii, where they lived. The picture of the girlfriend, painted by the newspaper, was one of confusion with a touch of despair over Snowden.
So it would seem prudent to start the investigation of this entire matter by delving into the reasons why Booz Allen Hamilton, owned by the Carlyle Group, a politically connected major government contractor, hired Snowden in the first place. What in his spotty resume convinced them to assign him to the National Security Agency?
The next question — for the FBI, the Justice Department and everyone else directly involved, all the way to the White House — is whether it is wise to depend on so many outside contractors in the first place, no matter how politically well connected. Obviously, security is always at risk when so many thousands of private and government employees are sanctioned to pry into our top-secret business. Consider Bradley Manning, on trial now and facing life in prison for leaking thousands of classified documents to a half-baked professional do-gooder.
That’s just another example of putting someone with the judgment of a field mouse in a place he could do the most harm, although in Manning’s case it was the military that messed up. Actually, it probably resulted from expanding access to satisfy demands for more transparency in government. That’s something I’ve always favored, but with some restraint when it is obviously needed.
The other night while dining with friends, few if any of them showed much concern about the government’s spying, an activity most Americans seem to take for granted. More worrisome may be the reliance on outside contractors to protect the government’s secrets.
Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at email@example.com.