(Before I begin: there are participants in the discourse who would say that we're supposed to natter on about Edward Snowden, and not the contents of his disclosures, because turning it into a personal issue rather than a political one is useful to the machineries of state. But the point I'm about to make here is different ...)
(UPDATE: An extended, reworked, more detailed essay along these lines can be found in Foreign Policy.)
In the 21st century, the NSA (and other espionage agencies) face a big system-wide problem that I haven't seen anybody talking about.
The problem is sociological, and it's going to get worse.
First, a brief re-cap. Here's the BBC's Adam Curtis on why the HUMINT establishment is incompetent by design (hint: we can blame a late 19th century author of technothrillers and the Daily Mail). Here's John le Carre on the relationship between spy fic and fact and, more worryingly, an anecdote from personal experience about an intel officer who made stuff up out of sheer boredom. Now, you might think that ELINT is better; computers don't lie, do they? But as Bruce Sterling has been pointing out snarkily from the sidelines for about 25 years now, the emperor is stark bollock naked. (Note: read that last essay as a sarcastic, irony-dripping rant by a prophet who burned out and gave up all hope years ago and is now luxuriating in a bath of pure schadenfreude.)
Are we ready? All together, now:
The big government/civil service agencies are old. They're products of the 20th century, and they are used to running their human resources and internal security processes as if they're still living in the days of the "job for life" culture; potential spooks-to-be were tapped early (often while at school or university), vetted, then given a safe sinecure along with regular monitoring to ensure they stayed on the straight-and-narrow all the way to the gold watch and pension. Because that's how we all used to work, at least if we were civil servants or white collar paper pushers back in the 1950s.
But things don't work that way any more. A huge and unmentionable side-effect of the neoliberal backlash of the 1970s was the deregulation of labour markets and the deliberate destruction of the job for life culture, partly as a lever for dislodging unionism and the taproots of left-wing power in the west (yes, it was explicit class war by the rich against the workers), and partly because a liquid labour market made entrepreneurial innovation and corporate restructuring easier (I love these capitalist euphemisms: I swear they'd find a use for "final solution" as well, if only some naughty, bad people hadn't rendered that clause taboo two-thirds of a century ago).
Today, around 70% of the US intelligence budget is spent on outside contractors. And it's a big budget — well over $50Bn a year. Some chunks go on heavy metal (the National Reconnaissance Office is probably the biggest high-spending agency you've never heard of: they build spy satellites the size of double-decker buses and have so many Hubble-class space telescopes cluttering up their attic that they donated a couple to NASA in 2012), but a lot goes on people. People to oil the machines. People who work for large contracting organizations. Organizations who increasingly rely on contractors rather than permanent labour, because of buzz-words like "flexibility" and "labour market liquidity".
Let's leave aside the prognostications of sociologists about over-broad cultural traits of an entire generation. The key facts are: Generation X's parents expected a job for life, but with few exceptions Gen Xers never had that — they're used to nomadic employment, hire-and-fire, right-to-work laws, the whole nine yards of organized-labour deracination. Gen Y's parents are Gen X. Gen Y has never thought of jobs as permanent things. Gen Y will stare at you blankly if you talk about loyalty to their employer; the old feudal arrangement ("we'll give you a job for life and look after you as long as you look out for the Organization") is something their grandparents maybe ranted about, but it's about as real as the divine right of kings. Employers are alien hive-mind colony intelligences who will fuck you over for the bottom line on the quarterly balance sheet. They'll give you a laptop and tell you to hot-desk or work at home so that they can save money on office floorspace and furniture. They'll dangle the offer of a permanent job over your head but keep you on a zero-hours contract for as long as is convenient. This is the world they grew up in: this is the world that defines their expectations.
To Gen X, a job for life with the NSA was a probably-impossible dream — it's what their parents told them to expect, but few of their number achieved. To Gen Y the idea of a job for life is ludicrous and/or impossible.
This means the NSA and their fellow swimmers in the acronym soup of the intelligence-industrial complex are increasingly reliant on nomadic contractor employees, and increasingly subject to staff churn. There is an emerging need to security-clear vast numbers of temporary/transient workers ... and workers with no intrinsic sense of loyalty to the organization. For the time being, security clearance is carried out by other contractor organizations that specialize in human resource management, but even they are subject to the same problem: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
We human beings are primates. We have a deeply ingrained set of cultural and interpersonal behavioural rules which we violate only at social cost. One of these rules, essential for a tribal organism, is bilaterality: loyalty is a two-way street. (Another is hierarchicality: yield to the boss.) Such rules are not iron-bound or immutable — we're not robots — but our new hive superorganism employers don't obey them instinctively, and apes and monkeys and hominids tend to revert to tit for tat quite easily when unsure of their relative status. Perceived slights result in retaliation, and blundering, human-blind organizations can slight or bruise an employee's ego without even noticing. And slighted or bruised employees who lack instinctive loyalty because the culture they come from has spent generations systematically destroying social hierarchies and undermining their sense of belonging are much more likely to start thinking the unthinkable.
Edward Snowden is 30: he was born in 1983. Generation Y started in 1980-82. I think he's a sign of things to come.
Bradley Chelsea Manning is 25.