Julian Assange and Edward Snowden (Wikileaks; Laura Poitras/Guardian)

Snowden & Wikileaks: Activists or Stateless Spies?

The growing trend of non-state actors challenging state authority in the international arena

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, non-state violence in the form of terrorism has become the threat de jour for the United States. In a post-Cold War environment where the U.S. reigns as sole “hyperpower” among superpowers, it is perhaps not surprising that combating the threat of terrorism, a mild annoyance compared to traditional state-based armed conflict, became a top priority. The devastating September 11 attacks were a display of just how dangerous a violent non-state actor could be. As part of the response to that threat, the United States defense and intelligence communities experienced a major build-up of capacity in the form of new agencies, tens of thousands of new personnel, and a dazzling array of secret programs. But this dramatic expansion of the national security establishment has left the U.S. more vulnerable to a different threat: espionage.

Members of the defense and intelligence communities like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden represent a new kind of international actor that mixes activism and espionage. Despite repeated comparisons to now-venerated whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg or Mark Felt, their motivations and methods make them more akin to spies. Even Wikileaks, which bills itself as a media organization, emulates an intelligence agency in its methods and purpose. But there’s a twist: groups like Wikileaks and leakers like Snowden don’t work on behalf of a state, nor do they seek to advance state interests. Instead, these non-state spies, if you can call them that, act on behalf of a global constituency from which they extract support. They are hailed as activists for their pro-transparency and anti-corruption ideology, while their methods simultaneously make them spies.

Wikileaks has a stated goal to “bring important news and information to the public,” but its history of media releases hints at a less lofty mission. Collateral Murder, a 2010 video featuring leaked gun camera footage from a US Army Apache helicopter in Iraq, was titled and edited to produce maximum outrage and anti-U.S. sentiment. Despite Assange’s almost reflexive labeling of all U.S. conduct as “criminal,” the release of hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables and Afghan war logs did not expose corruption, waste, or criminality, the traditional motivations of whistleblowers. Instead, these releases seek to pressure states and affect foreign policy, a sort of NGO version of clandestine operations. While many NGOs that are considered perfectly legitimate attempt to influence state conduct, they do not do so by seeking out and indiscriminately releasing classified information that endangers national security and serve a narrow interest. Journalists seek out leaks, too, but they carefully weigh the overall public interest in publishing classified information against the harm it would do to national security.

Just as the State Department provides the Central Intelligence Agency with cover when the latter operates overseas, Wikileaks also releases information from what are unquestionably whistleblowers, providing its supporters with the plausible cover of a “media organization” serving the public good rather than pushing a narrative. And like any good intelligence organization, Wikileaks cultivates sources with access, tries to protect them, and makes strategic use of the classified information gained in order to further its ideological objectives. Assange and his supporters seek to challenge the state-based international order that they believe is composed of oppressive governments and corporations and led by the United States. Secondary to that anti-authority ideal is the techno-utopian belief in absolute internet freedom and the idea that states do not have the right to conduct any business in secret, nor the right to stop people from seeking out state secrets.

So what distinguishes Wikileaks from other non-state actors fighting government secrecy?

Take the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. Steven Aftergood, who writes the Project’s Secrecy News blog, engages in the debate about government secrecy and classification through his public work and legal action. Though he supports and defends Wikileaks, his non-partisan and legal methods of fighting excessive government secrecy distinguishes his work from theirs. For example, he sued the Central Intelligence Agency under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to force them to publish the intelligence budget for the first time. He takes the national security establishment to task over excessive secrecy, such as when the CIA denied a FOIA request by intelligence historian Jeffrey Richelson for reports or studies by the Center on Climate Change and National Security on the dubious basis that none of the Center’s work product could be released without damaging national security.

The Project on Government Secrecy also provides resources that help Americans understand their government’s secrecy policy, both how it is officially stated and how it is actually practiced. It tracks legal action, files FOIA requests, and provides expert analysis. In other words, it provides context and education that better arms a constituent to question their representatives, make voting decisions, and protest government action. Wikileaks, on the other hand, provides indiscriminate dumps of leaked documents and blunt propaganda to further its anti-authority narrative. Assange’s opportunistic partnerships with governments far more corrupt and oppressive than his favored targets underlines his desire to avoid perceived conformity and “fight the man.”

While the idea of Wikileaks as an opposition intelligence organization is undoubtedly controversial, the case of Edward Snowden is a bit more straightforward.

By his own admission, Snowden sought a job with defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton for the express purpose of gaining access to classified material and leaking it. But what makes Snowden any different from a whistleblower or an investigative journalist who infiltrates a secretive business or organization to ferret out a story for the public interest? Few argue that the American public would not benefit from a debate over PRISM or the NSA’s collection of cellular metadata (even if much of the initial reporting was exaggerated or inaccurate). But whistleblowers do not infiltrate intelligence agencies to ferret out their secrets, and investigative reporters do not brazenly commit felonies to pursue their stories and then flee to foreign countries when caught. Spies do both.

Snowden posits that he broke the law to expose government tyranny, and fleeing was necessary only because of the danger such a service to the public usually entails. His actions suggest a desire to play a part in world events and fight an international system he apparently does not understand. He went well beyond anything resembling whistleblowing about domestic surveillance by leaking details about NSA operations against foreign targets, which were carefully timed to cause maximum damage to U.S. relations with China and European Union countries. He kept troves of highly sensitive information in his possession when he fled to Hong Kong and then to Russia, two of the United States’ fiercest intelligence rivals. Snowden’s acceptance of assistance from foreign powers, none of which uphold the ideals of internet freedom and transparency he endorses, are reminiscent of a Cold War defection rather than a von Trapp-esque flight from tyranny.

Snowden’s motivations put him in alignment with Wikileaks, but his desire to act on those motivations are the result of a clear ideological shift. The change was strong enough that he went from believing leakers of classified information should be “shot in the balls” to lionizing them and becoming one himself. Like Assange and Wikileaks, Snowden is not acting on behalf of a state — at least so far as we know — but for a naive ideology he believes transcends states (a trait shared by what Tom Nichols calls Generation Snowden). By threatening to release all the stolen files to the world “if anything happens at all” to him, Snowden positions himself as a major player in the international arena, one who must be taken seriously. Unlike state-sponsored spies whose handlers have captured agents to trade, Snowden relies on his possession of classified information for leverage against his intelligence rivals. He represents a new kind of “lone wolf” spy, one that cannot be recruited and that government background investigators are not adequately equipped to identify.

Whether or not Wikileaks can reasonably be considered an opposition intelligence organization or Snowden a non-state spy, it is clear the US today has a heightened vulnerability to insider threats. Counter-intelligence is primarily concerned with foreign spy agencies, and the discussion surrounding non-state espionage has focused on militant groups like Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. The Assanges and Snowdens of the world are not proponents of violence, but their efforts to undermine U.S. foreign policy and national security are certainly not harmless.

Non-state actors with an international level of influence today run the gamut from terrorist groups to NGOs and multinational corporations; we may soon have to add independent spies to that list. As we wait for terminology to catch up, the search for strategies to deal with increasingly assertive non-state actors when their interests clash with those of states will continue to raise important questions about sovereignty and international law.