Newsweek’s Wayward Cover Story on Snowden and Chinese Cyber Hacking

Newsweek’s current cover story, “How Edward Snowden Escalated Cyber War with China” by Kurt Eichenwald, is an important read. Eichenwald makes two claims:

  1. Snowden’s impact: the specific timing and content of Snowden’s revelations of NSA foreign surveillance practices undercut US diplomatic efforts to get China to stop stealing US corporate and military secrets.
  2. Snowden’s motivation: Snowden’s failure to release similar information about Chinese hacking of US entities indicates that Snowden has a political agenda to support China and undermine the United States.

The first claim is significant and generally well-documented. The second is superficial and misinformed.

On the first claim, Eichenwald shows that the US diplomatic pressure against China is now vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. However, Eichenwald’s depiction of the impact is overstated. For example, he writes: “The administration’s attempt to curb China’s assault on American business and government was crippled – perhaps forever, experts say.” Crippled? Forever? It is clear that Snowden’s actions have unsettled US efforts to confront China. US diplomats, however, should be able to clearly explain the difference between NSA cyber actions and Chinese actions. Indeed, Eichenwald’s own article is able to succinctly frame the following distinction:

The activities of the two sides, however, are vastly different in scope and intent. The United States engages in widespread electronic espionage, but that classified information cannot legally be handed over to private industry. China is using its surveillance to steal trade secrets, harm international competitors and undermine American businesses.

In other words, it is obviously wrong-headed to conflate the American and Chinese practices simply because they use similar technology and means. The programs have, assuming Eichenwald is correct, very different purposes and effects.

It is also questionable how much ground the US has lost in convincing other countries to pressure China. As Eichenwald acknowledges, a long list of industrialized nations are the targets of China’s hackers. One would expect those countries still share a common economic interest to resolve the problem, and will remain relatively receptive to those US efforts.

In sum, Eichenwald presents a persuasive case that Snowden’s revelations undercut current US negotiation strategies, but the degree and duration of that damage raise questions that his Newsweek story simply glides over. [I bracket here whether US negotiation strategies have been well-designed to resolve the problem.]

Eichenwald’s second claim—that Snowden appears to have consciously helped China and hurt the US — is unpersuasive, and the story never even hints that there are more benign explanations of Snowden’s actions. Eichenwald writes: “There was good reason to believe Snowden had plenty of details about Beijing’s activities,” but “Snowden has revealed nothing about surveillance and hacking in China.” Both of those propositions are correct. But what does that say about Snowden’s motive? Perhaps under the restraint of his editors, Eichenwald does not cross the line of explicitly suggesting Snowden is working on behalf of China. Following the article’s publication, however, he has done that and more on Twitter (he believes Snowden is “a Chinese spy”).

Here’s what Eichenwald doesn’t even entertain: any decision on Snowden’s part not to disclose information about China’s actions is consistent with US national security and economic interests. First, if disclosing this info served US interests, presumably the administration would have publicly revealed that information itself and long ago. Second, if Snowden revealed this type of information it could harm the United States. It would likely show China what we know, what we don’t know, and how we know it. And, it could effectively let the world know the nature and extent of US cyber vulnerabilities. Indeed, just imagine the official US response to a FOIA request for all classified information on Chinese hacking practices: the government would respond that such disclosures would reveal information that could be expected to harm US national security.

Finally, revealing information about Chinese practices might directly undermine US diplomatic efforts. Revealing everything we know about Chinese hacking, among other things, may make it harder for Chinese officials to save face. Eichenwald seems to want to shame the Chinese publicly, but lasting concessions may be much more likely if China can emerge from an agreement without public embarrassment.

As an aside: my questioning of Eichenwald’s conclusions regarding Snowden’s motivation says nothing about whether I believe any of Snowden’s disclosures serve or betray the public interest. As I note above, one side effect is the harm to US diplomatic efforts against China. Those collateral effects, however, say little or nothing about Snowden’s motivations.

In sum, in his effort to paint a particular image of Snowden’s motivations, Eichenwald fails to alert his readers to any of these alternate considerations. An irony here is that Eichenwald’s article, were it to succeed in pressing Snowden to disclose information on Chinese practices, could wreak damage to the United States.


About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.