Gabriel Schoenfeld is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, whose essays on national security and modern history have appeared in leading publications. In the March 2006 issue of Commentary, Schoenfeld called for the government to prosecute a number of reporters and editors at The New York Times under espionage statutes, after it broke the story of the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance of people within the United States. Schoenfeld's 2010 book, Necessary Secrets: National Security, The Media, and the Rule of Law, raises the question of whether the press should ever be prosecuted for revealing information that might endanger national defense.
In 2011-12, Schoenfeld was a senior adviser to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. His new e-book, A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider's Account, examines tactical errors that contributed to the defeat of the 2012 Republican nominee, and spurs discussion of the Republican Party's future.
Schoenfeld spoke with Politix Editor-in-Chief David Mark about the saga of Edward Snowden, the one-time contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA). After fleeing the United States for Hong Kong, Snowden disclosed to the press details about classified NSA mass surveillance programs.
Necessary Secrets is a sweeping historical survey tensions between a press that often sees itself as the heroic force promoting the public's "right to know," and a government that needs to safeguard information vital to the effective conduct of foreign policy. Where do Edward Snowden's actions fit in this narrative?
So much has happened since I finished my book. We've had this unprecedented series of actions by the Obama administration, which came in promising maximum openness, but is actually engaging in perhaps the most severe crackdown on leaks since the Nixon administration. This is an administration that's really making the intellectual case for limiting the distribution of classified information.
Along comes this new bombshell thrown by Snowden, who is part whistle-blower, part spy. We haven't figured out how much of each yet. He's certainly blown open operations we've had against Chinese servers. It's more along the lines of what Philip Agee did in the 1970s of trying to undo the work of American intelligence agencies.
Edward Snowden has been called a traitor and a hero. How would you characterize him?
I don't think he's a hero, under any definition. Most of his defenders even agree the programs he disclosed were lawful. He didn't pursue the normal whistleblower route of going to Congress, an inspector general or any other body that might have done something about correcting the problems he saw. Whether or not he's a traitor, there's mounting evidence he's out to damage the United States. He's coming close; he's skirting on the edge of it. But we really can't say right now with certitude.
What do you make of Glenn Greenwald's role in this episode, publicizing Snowden's narrative in The Guardian?
He's a fascinating case. He's an expatriate who lives in Brazil. He's critical of every aspect of U.S. foreign policy, from a far-left perspective. He's using a foreign newspaper to disclose America's sensitive secrets. But he's not the only one. We have The Washington Post and Barton Gellman doing the same thing. But Gellman went to the NSA to discuss what type of damage would ensure, and he acted with some degree of care. I don't think Glenn Greenwald has the same kind of concern for the damage he might have done.
Should journalists be prosecuted for possessing classified material?
I think the Justice Department should reserve the right to prosecute those cases where it's warranted. In this case I would have a hard time pulling a trigger on a prosecution. I'm thinking more of the World War II war-time case where The Chicago Tribune published the fact that codes had been broken. In this case it's more of an indirect chain to serious harm. I'd want to have a very direct chain.
Do you see a difference between services like cell phone use, which are paid for, and those that come free, like Gmail and Facebook, where there might reasonably be less of an expectation of privacy?
We can have a big debate about what type of surveillance are appropriate. But it was not Snowden's place to decide that. In a democracy you have elected official who you entrust with these important decisions.
Someone in the bureaucracy, like Snowden, who comes along and finds evidence of what he regards as wrongdoing has every right to disclose it. But with that comes consequences, and he's trying to avoid the consequences. In that sense he's an outlaw. One would have a lot more respect for him if he hadn't flown to Hong Kong, but had flown to Washington, D.C., and presented himself on the steps of the Supreme Court or some other public venue.
Do you think the media has too high and opinion of itself, as if it's doing the lord's work?
I think there has been a shift in the attitudes of the media over the past couple of decades. Certainly Nixon did his bit to poison the well and give ground the type of hyper-skepticism of today. But it doesn't mean every government action is wrong. The balance has tilted too far.
Is the media too full of itself? I think so. But like every other institution it's a large body of individuals, some of whom are better than others. Some of whom have motives which are pure, some of whose motives are less than pure. But they're not very self-critical.