With this agreement between Russia and the U.S. over a partial cease-fire in Syria, it’s starting to look like a win-win for Putin, don’t you think?
Let me play this out a little bit. You’ve got our secretary of state trying to move heaven and earth to stop the killing. But we’re in the position of being the supplicant. [Kerry’s] going to the Russians and the Iranians, “Please, we need a cease-fire.” And let me tell you the sentence he then is unable to say: “We need a cease-fire. And if we don’t get it, this is what we’re going to do.” He’s out there flying without top cover, because everyone knows we’re not committed to any more dramatic action in Syria.
Edward Snowden is making noises about wanting to come back to the U.S. if he’s given the promise of a fair trial.
And he has a definition of a fair trial. He wants to able to use the public interest defense, which in essence means, “It really doesn’t matter that I broke the law. I did a good thing, and I should only be judged on your appreciation of how good a thing I did.” I guess that would be attractive to some people, but if you look at the American history of civil disobedience and you read Thoreau, it only becomes a morally justifiable act if you’re prepared to pay the consequences.
How would you characterize the damage Snowden caused the nation?
As I mention in my book [Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror], it’s the single biggest hemorrhage of American secrets in the history of the republic. And 98 percent of what he released has to do with how America collects foreign intelligence. What civil liberties quotient was there in his giving a correspondent a document that let him write about the ability of the NSA to intercept and penetrate the e-mails of the Syrian armed forces? They just change their behavior.
You just watched Apple attorney Ted Olson defend the protection of customer data. Where do you stand?
My position is that with the FBI and others demanding that Apple universally enable backdoors in their devices to break otherwise unbreakable encryption, I actually side with Apple. On the grounds of security and safety, I think that’s the best choice. American security and safety, in this current cyber era, is better served with end-to-end unbreakable encryption.
But is a backdoor into all iPhones what the FBI is really after?
I’m not convinced that’s what [FBI Director] Jim Comey is asking for. I think there are differences. And frankly, I’m willing, at the present time, to shade in the direction of the bureau’s request here [for access] to this phone. [In a court document unsealed on Feb. 23, Apple said the FBI had requested access to at least 11 iPhones since September.] Otherwise, I think Tim Cook, who I’ve talked to about this in the past, is in the position of saying, “Apple under no circumstances will allow itself to cooperate with law enforcement”—which I don’t think is a good position to be in.
Tell me about the state of cyberwarfare on the government level and the bargain the president struck with China.
Boy, we’ve done a lot in this area. We’ve organized powerful institutions to go ahead and work America’s will in the cyberdomain on both defense and offense. To be perfectly candid, we’re better at stealing other people’s secrets than anyone else in the world. But we self-limit. We steal secrets to keep our citizens free and safe. We do not steal secrets to make them rich. That makes us one of maybe four or five countries on the planet that limit themselves in that way. You mentioned Xi Jinping and President Obama’s agreement. Xi agreed to the American definition of legitimate espionage. In other words, you don’t use the power of the state to steal secrets for profit. We’ll see what happens.
Is it easier to get information on a nation-state than it is on a group like Islamic State?
Absolutely. And in fact, the fundamental tectonic shift in global geopolitics is that the things that can primarily go bump in the night are not the products, any longer, of malevolent state power. They’re the byproducts of state failure.
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