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The forced grounding of Bolivian President Morales' airplane over European airspace this week hints at an intense level of desperation if not panic among US security organizations over the Snowden affair. To interfere with a head of a sovereign state traveling across "friendly" airspace is simply breathtaking. Even to an ordinary citizen like me, this was an egregious breech of diplomatic protocol which sets a very dangerous precedent for global commerce on all levels. Violating the core concept of "safe passage" as well as flagrantly disrespecting Bolivian sovereignty puts US global citizenship in serious question.

Let me say that the US has not to my knowledge admitted asking European countries to close their airspace to President Morales' aircraft, but it strains credulity to believe that three countries--wholly on their own--decided to bar President Morales from crossing their airspace. This post assumes that thru one channel or another, the US at some level, made known to appropriate authorities an intense interest in seizing Edward Snowden.
My concern is that taking such a risky and damaging step suggests that there may be way more under the covers in this episode than has been revealed so far. The injuries to US interests that we know of to date include the compromising of sensitive secret information, Mr. Snowden's violation of a non-disclosure agreement and his fleeing the country and seeking asylum elsewhere.

The question that occurred to me early on was how much money Snowden stood to gain from his actions. To my knowledge (and someone please correct me if I'm wrong) other than WikiLeaks picking up daily expenses, he does not stand to make any money from this episode. So his own explanation, that he was acting as a conscientious citizen on behalf of the US public to reveal (in his view) unacceptable intrusions into their private affairs, remains (for the moment) credible.

However, Mr. Snowden whatever his intents and purposes has been effectively stranded in place and has been rendered a global pariah. While his king has been "checked," can the US call "checkmate" or does he still have moves? Or is it game over and back to the States to join Bradley Manning and John Kiriakou in the whistleblower gulag?

Please join me below the fold.

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As an operator within the security apparatus, Snowden must have weighed these consequences when deciding to defy the world's (and history's) preeminent superpower. Besides, how could he not have considered the sheer magnitude of forces that would be arrayed against him--a solitary individual with no power base and with no resources beyond hoped-for sympathetic global opinion and the unknowable facilities of  WikiLeaks?

From the start, I did not feel that Mr. Snowden was the story here. For the reasons I mentioned in the previous paragraph, Snowden must have weighed his options and acted anyway, so his fate is his own and whether he is a folk hero or a vile traitor is a matter for US courts and global public opinion to decide. For now, I see the uproar over Mr. Snowden's whereabouts and his future to be red herrings arranged to deflect attention away from the leaked content, the nature of the surveillance system itself and the agencies that run these programs.

So, about the surveillance system. Do any other American citizens find it surprising that this level of highly classified information has been outsourced to a private corporation? I was stunned. Private corporations have their own agendas, their own interests and their undisputed purpose in life is profit.

If there is such heightened concern over the handling of such sensitive information, then how does it make sense to cede control over this national "treasure trove" to a private corporation with its own interests, its own personnel reporting to its own management and with a (no doubt) expansive profit motive? With forty years in the corporate world under my belt, i'm very wary of corporate executives' commitment to business outcomes that don't prioritize first their company's interests and next their own personal interest. As a US taxpayer, I'm totally convinced that "secrets" especially those sensitive enough to disrupt global diplomacy must remain under the total and complete control of the US government.

Another troublesome issue arises from the reporting that Mr. Snowden was an independent contractor, not even a permanent employee of the company. Nothing against independent contractors. I myself worked as an independent contractor in Silicon Valley on and off over the years and the individual's level of commitment is not in question. However, a company uses an independent contractor when a project calls for specialized skills which will be needed only for the life of the project or they use independent contractors to avoid paying benefits and be able to terminate employment without severance pay or litigation hassles.

I can live with all of that in a regular company, but in a company that is serving as a branch of the NSA handling the nation's most sensitive secret data, this is simply unacceptable (at least to this taxpayer). It can certainly be argued that many, many whistleblowers or leakers or whatever we call them were in fact US government employees and they spilled the beans anyway. No doubt...but if a breech does occur, the US government has full access to its own processes and personnel and can review them without involving proprietary corporate resources which may be restricted or withheld overtly or covertly. On the corporate side that may well never happen as i described, but we just don't know as long everything is tightly shrouded in secrecy.

There's still a lot of troubling issues to discuss, but this post is getting very long and I will close by mentioning one other aspect that I find deeply troubling: the actual content of the compromised data. We know that much concerns communications meta-data, but Snowden apparently is believed to possess much more secret material. With the negative reactions from friend and foe alike, it would seem that many oxen have been shown to be gored in these revelations.

My last thought at this time is that in the information world, openness and transparency are always healthier for a democracy than secrecy. Once unaccountable forces, whether employed by the government or a corporation, start operating behind a shroud of secrecy, it's time to turn on the lights. Knowledge is power and power corrupts and with apologies to Lord Acton, unaccountable power corrupts absolutely.  

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