What do the Snowden leaks and the North Korean attack on Sony have in common? (Other than large authoritarian patrons, that is.)
They’re both textbook examples of hostile foreign intelligence operations, Snowden targeting the NSA, the Norks tarketing Sony.
First, target the opposition with damaging leaks. These aren’t just routine leaks that make an organization look bad to people who don’t like them anyway. They’re leaks designed to separate the target from its friends. In the case of the NSA, it was driving a wedge between the NSA and the American public who depend on a robust intelligence-gathering operation for national protection. In Sony’s case, it was the release of emails between a studio head and a very successful producer making fun of the president, with a racial element, and complaints about the behavior of some of the more popular people in Hollywood. This had the effect of separating the studio from its natural allies in liberal Hollywood.
The leaks might have done some mostly transient damage on their own. But really, they were just wrong-footing the target, and making it both emotionally difficult and politically unpopular to come to their defense when the real attack happened. When George Clooney tries to “explain” why nobody came to Sony’s defense, he’s totally missing that part – Sony had been effectively isolated already. Once Amy Pascal got caught assuming that President Obama only like movies with black actors, or with black themes, nobody wanted to be on their side.
So now, momentarily unpopular, the target is trying to figure out how to deal with the PR tsunami they’re on the wrong side of. Sony is used to defining the narrative, the NSA used to not being a part of any narrative. This is unfamiliar territory for them.
At that point, the actual attack part of the operation. In the case of the NSA, this meant revealing foreign intelligence operations, the kind of things we expect our intelligence services to be doing, damaging relationships with our allies, revealing sources and methods to our enemies, and forcing the agency to defend itself for doing its job.
In the case of Sony, the attack was different – threaten the theater’s revenue stream and make sure that it got the message about what is and isn’t acceptable to produce, and make them look weak and feckless in the process. The weak point was the theater chains. It’s been rightly pointed out that once they decided not to show the film, there wasn’t much Sony could do about regular distribution. But none of that mattered, as Sony took the additional PR hit of looking as though it was directly caving to pressure from the guy Jonah Goldberg likes to call, the Pillsbury Doughboy from Hell.
If all this sounds familiar to critics of President Obama who are also conversant with political theory, it should. Some of these elements are part and parcel of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” in the political arena. Not for nothing are some of my friends currently and formerly in the intelligence community among the foremost admirers of Alinsky’s genius, if not his aims or the effect he’s had on the US political culture. Much of what he did amounts to applying hostile intelligence operations to domestic politics.
Personally, I think this transition is incredibly poisonous to the body politic. It’s helpful to have a default position of “distrust” when it comes to foreign countries, even our allies. (When someone asks why we would spy on our friends, the correct response is, “To make sure they still are.) Countries all have diverse interests which won’t necessarily coincide with ours, their foreign policy decision-making processes are usually at-best translucent and often opaque. It’s entirely reasonable to believe that, short of the actual annihilation of humanity, countries are in competition at a very basic level.
Little if any of that should hold for fellow Americans of different political parties. Our system, as an open one, only works if we can basically trust that everyone has the country’s best interests at heart, even has basically the same goals in mind, and we’re more or less arguing over how to get there. The problem with Alinskyite politics isn’t that it’s effective – it’s that its effectiveness comes at the price of an overarching sense of community and trust that’s necessary for the country’s politics to operate. I know for a fact there are plenty of conservatives who think that Obama is working for the enemy, and while I don’t share that mindset, I also don’t think he always puts the country’s goals first, or thinks that US power and prosperity are necessarily good things – he’s as much said so on any number of occasions. What’s worse, the Alinsky Attitude leads him to try to criminalize political opposition, something that’s never really happened before here in the US. When you treat routine political opposition like activity hostile to the country, the mutual suspicions you engender are liable to linger on for a long time.
In any case, what is so clear in the realm of domestic politics, or in the Sony case, should be equally clear in the Snowden Operation. But it’s also another reason as to why the motives of the leaker matter. And what’s more, you can start to figure some of this out before the actual attack happens.
In either case, if we had been thinking, “You know, the guys leaking this stuff might not really have our best interests at heart, and maybe we want to discount our level of outrage over this accordingly,” the second part of the attack would have been blunted, because we would have see Part II with eyes more sympathetic to the target.
Instead of bugging Merkel’s phones (which now, it seems, may not have happened at all) being seen as yet another diabolical plot by an agency bent on being the World Repository for Everything You’ve Ever Said or Written, they would have seemed like what they look like now – the kind of thing you want your spy agencies up to. Sure, we got there eventually, more or less, but in the interim Putin was able to make all kinds of mischief in Ukraine and elsewhere, while our intelligence community was busily defending its right to exist.
Instead of thinking, “Wow, I sure don’t want to stand up for those guys,” much of Hollywood would have instead been scrambling to find some way to help their competitor, or potential future employer or partner find a way to distribute their movie, and we would have been thinking, “Wow, this sure stinks for Sony to be stuck in this position, doesn’t it?” From what I saw on social media, people were upset at being dictated to by Kim, but felt betrayed by Sony, and only to a much lesser extent by the theater chains.
What does this mean for the next time? Mostly, it means that motives matter, and need to be taken into account. And it means that people who fall for the initial narrative – mostly libertarians over the NSA, and liberals over Sony – are getting played by our enemies. We’re trained by our political culture not to look at motives; questions about motives are seen as ad hominem, secondary to the issue at best, and gutter politics at worst. It’s another reason to hate what Chicago Gangster Government has done to us, but it’s really just good, basic counterintelligence work, which is what we’re dealing with when we’re dealing with foreign governments and their agents.
The irony is that the kind of Stage 1 attack is, at heart, ad hominem about motives. The NSA must have nefarious motives for collecting phone metadata. Sony must be populated with jerks (above and beyond normal Hollywood standards) and racists (of the wrong sort).
We can yell at each other, divide ourselves up into red team and blue team, fight tooth and nail for this or that office or over this or that bill. But when a foreign entity launches an attack of any kind – even, or perhaps especially – one that seeks to divide us, we need to have the self-discipline not to bite. There’s nothing the matter with questioning the motives of those whose first goal is to get us to question our neighbors.