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NSA should hire more Snowdens, not fewer

July 9, 2013, at 9:17 PM
Edward Snowden supporters carry a sign that reads "Shelter in Germany for Edward Snowden" while rallying in Berlin on July 4.

Edward Snowden supporters carry a sign that reads "Shelter in Germany for Edward Snowden" while rallying in Berlin on July 4. Photo: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/Reuters/Corbis

To prevent future leaks of classified information and to keep pace with chameleon-y enemies, the NSA needs to hire more Edward Snowdens, not fewer of them.

Right after Snowden became a household name, the New York Times' David Brooks self-satisfyingly blamed an entire generation of Americans for the actions of one.

After noting that Snowden seemed to like living in a lot of places, Brooks wrote that the man was the "product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: The atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments."

I know plenty of people who fit that description. They're called opinion columnists. They live in the fuzzy land between easy truths that their audiences want to believe and what their own brains actually believe. Many of them happen to be men in their 50s or 60s.

Right away, the Snowden affair shows us how successful NSA has been in hiring Millennials. Snowden really is the exception. Of the tens of thousands of Millennials who now work for NSA, one of them decided to leak secrets. One. No amount of dubious insider-threat training or political screening is going to prevent Edward Snowden from being Edward Snowden. There is nothing wrong with the NSA's security screening process. Absolutely nothing. Those who see something indicative of the culture in Snowden are either seeing something in themselves that they aren't comfortable with, or they've simply gotten blisters from lumping Snowden in with a category of people they don't like.

The fact is that Snowden is not typical of anything. From scratch, he decided to penetrate the world's most powerful intelligence agency and subject its secrets to scrutiny. He risked a lot in doing so. He figured out how to manipulate human beings and human systems to get away with it. That's pretty singularly audacious. I'm no Snowden-lover; I lost my personal sympathy for him when he started to question the entire SIGINT enterprise, rather than the stuff I also found objectionable. I'm still in awe of the guy, though.

If NSA wants to figure out how to circumvent the Snowdens of the future, it would do well to figure out how to hire people who share his worldview, his cognitive toolkit, but not his judgment. The NSA needs more independent thinkers, not fewer. More "hactivists" (although that term somehow suggests a washed-up journalist who lobbies for other washed-up journalists). Obviously, I'm not suggesting that NSA should hire people who intend to break the law in service of telling a larger truth.

I am suggesting that they find people who are... well, the product of social atomization, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments. Why? These guys know how to get shit done.

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