What If Snowden's Laptops Hold No Secrets?

The NSA leaker insists he'll never give classified data to the Russians. He may be telling the truth.

In a letter to a former senator released this week, NSA leaker Edward Snowden swore that there is no way the Russian government can get any sensitive information from him -- despite the fact that he has been camped out in the Moscow airport for the past few weeks, carrying four laptops that he had supposedly used to lift the NSA's secrets.

"No intelligence service -- not even our own -- has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect," Snowden wrote to former Senator Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire in an email published by the Guardian. "You may rest easy knowing [that] I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture."

At first glance, the message seems like more braggadocio from a man who has appeared to lay it on thick before, from his self-proclaimed ability to bug the president to his claims of being able to "shut down the surveillance system in an afternoon." It's widely assumed in both the business and the intelligence communities that any electronics brought into Moscow (or Hong Kong, for that matter) are going to be compromised by the country's spy agency. Perhaps he is underestimating the technical prowess of the Russian security services; perhaps he is overestimating his own.

But there's a third possibility: that Snowden is telling the truth. That there really is no way for him to give up any more information, other than the stuff in his head. Snowden may have left the United States with "four computers that enabled him to gain access to some of the U.S. government's most highly-classified secrets," as the Guardian put it. But he may not have those secrets now. The laptops could very well be empty -- and the secrets could be somewhere else.

Ever since Snowden's leaks began to appear in the press, Washington has been debating whether the former systems administrator is a whistleblower or some sort of spy. The latter position appeared to be radically strengthened when Snowden appeared in Hong Kong (where, presumably, the Chinese could get access to his laptops) and then in Moscow. Even if he didn't willfully cooperate with the governments there, they would drain his laptops of every last file. If those files were encrypted, that might slow things down -- but eventually, the secrets would be theirs.

The interpretation relies on Snowden, a veteran of a host of American intelligence agencies, being completely oblivious to Russia and China's well-known capacities to hack - or planning from the start to be an agent of a foreign power. Neither seems likely. Spies don't ask for asylum in a couple dozen countries. And former counterintelligence specialists -- even ones as young and unusual as Snowden -- aren't that out to lunch. As Snowden told Humphrey, "one of my specializations was to teach our people at DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] how to keep such information from being compromised even in the highest threat counter-intelligence environments [like] China."

Of course, the best way to keep that information from being compromised is not to have it at all.

The closer you look at the "four laptops" story, the more it seems like a ruse designed to keep spies in Washington and Moscow guessing. Why would Snowden need four computers to carry the NSA data when a portable hard drive the size of a hand can carry terabytes of information? Why would he hold on to such information when he knew he would be a target for Western intelligence agencies -- entities that "no one can meaningfully oppose," as Snowden put it. "If they want to get you, they'll get you in time." Sure, the data could be a bargaining chip in a negotiation for political asylum. But what good is a bargaining chip, if it can be snatched from your hands?

The smarter play would be to give someone else that leverage -- to let one of Snowden's interlocutors, like Glenn Greenwald or Laura Poitras, hold on to the data. Or to split it up among a dozen different players. Snowden's team says they've already engineered a kind of digital dead man's switch, which can release a torrent of sensitive information in case the United States engages in "extremely rogue behavior," as Greenwald puts it. The metaphorical switch is designed to be flipped in Snowden's absence, not his presence. 

In a sane world, the contents of Snowden's laptops would have legal ramifications. It's a more serious violation of the Espionage Act to deliver classified information into the hands of a foreign power than it is to simply make off with secrets that could be used to hurt the U.S. (One is punishable by death, the other by 10 years in prison.) But this world isn't always sane. On Thursday, a military judge allowed Wikileaker Bradley Manning to be charged with "aiding the enemy," since Osama bin Laden might have read one of the documents he disclosed on a news site. Whatever is on Snowden's computers, he's likely to face harsh punishment if he ever returns to the United States.

But there could be consequences in the way Snowden -- and future leakers -- are perceived, depending on whether his laptops are empty or full. Past U.S. government whistleblowers have already worried publicly that Snowden could damage the cause of tomorrow's crop -- allowing them to be branded them as traitors because Snowden supposedly put American secrets in Vladimir Putin's hands. What if he had no more secrets to digitally spill?


Democracy Lab

The Odds are Good for Egypt

Run the numbers, and you’ll see that Egypt’s coup may be just what the country needed.

The recent ouster of President Mohamed Morsy by the Egyptian military cast a dark shadow on Egypt's fledgling democracy. The president was displaced on July 3, just days after he failed to satisfy an ultimatum put forth by the country's top generals. The interim president Adly Mansour, appointed by the leaders of the military, has already blunted some of the damage and put forth an ambitious timetable to return the country to democracy. 

Egypt's political crisis has been interpreted in two sharply conflicting ways. Opponents of the coup lament the irreparable damage it does to Egyptian democracy. Not only has the constitution been suspended as a result of military intervention, triggering a crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood, but Egypt's first freely and fairly elected leader has been toppled, setting a perilous precedent and unleashing violence that threatens to derail the return of elected rule.

The coup's supporters, by contrast, argue that it will help set the stage for a stronger democratic future by offsetting illiberal aspects of the constitution such as the exclusion of secular groups from power and restrictions on free expression. Indeed, they point to the fact that the new transition plan puts Egypt on a fast track to new elections. 

These conflicting interpretations are stark: Democracy is rarely cultivated in a Petri dish overnight, but it is also rarely doomed once an experiment in self-rule has begun. History instead suggests that new democracies often muddle through, meandering fitfully to a stable democratic future. Therefore, while democracy in Egypt has suffered an unfortunate short-term setback, it is not destined to fail. 

Egypt's circumstances are not unique. Between 1875 and 2004, there have been 117 transitions to democracy across the world based on the conventional definition of procedural democracy: (1) the chief executive is elected; (2) the legislature is elected; (3) there is more than one political party; and (4) an incumbent has lost power and transferred it peacefully to a new leader. Of these transitions, 25 were quickly overturned by military coups in a manner similar to Egypt. In these instances, the military frequently intervenes to rectify what it perceives to be a critical flaw in the democratic design and sets the stage for a return to a more sustainable democracy. 

The good news for Egypt is that some of these stillborn transitions have given way to quick returns to elected rule. In 9 of 25 cases, there was a return to democracy within five years. Examples include Peru, Argentina, Burundi, and Guinea Bissau. In these cases, military leaders have held free and fair elections quickly after overthrowing civilian governments, effectively "resetting" democracy in a manner more favorable to the military or civil society groups allied with them. Some of these "second-chance" democracies experienced further backsliding (e.g., Argentina) before eventually consolidating and shedding the most extreme legacies of politicized constitutional engineering. 

Even the more delayed returns to elected rule give reason for hope. In 20 of the 25 cases of stillborn transition (including the nine cases mentioned above), there was a return to democracy within 15 years. These include Ghana, Pakistan, and Thailand. Although democracy is far from perfect in these countries, it has survived setbacks similar to those in Egypt today. 

The bad news is that a few stillborn transitions have instead yielded a return to prolonged dictatorship. In five cases, democracy was either dramatically delayed (Nigeria and South Korea) or permanently shelved (Burma, Sudan, and Uganda). And in these cases, civil strife, violence and repression have been ubiquitous features of the political landscape. Hard-line elements within the military pushed for a greater focus on domestic security. If elections are held at all, it is under conditions of severely circumscribed competition that excluded popular groups and in which pro-military incumbents are all but guaranteed victory. 

This begs the question about what determines whether countries are able to recover after a coup that resets democracy. A basic data analysis reveals that there are several "structural" factors that, while far from deterministic, play an important role in whether a stillborn transition segues into a quick return to democracy or instead represents a renewed lapse into dictatorship. Countries located in regions with a greater number of neighbors that are democratic are more likely to return to democracy at a quicker pace after a coup, as are those countries with open economies.

In other words, reclusive states in bad neighborhoods face steep obstacles in returning to elected government. Similarly, very poor countries are less likely to return to democracy, as are those that have a legacy of a large repressive apparatus under dictatorship. States with a history of financing large militaries and police forces employed to maintain order and quash dissent, rather than invest in education and infrastructure, are less likely to witness protest movements or the rise of a middle class that can help push for a return to democracy.

Political factors also play an important role in the return to democracy after a stillborn transition. These factors are ultimately the result of deliberate choices made by incumbents and the opposition and therefore suggest that the key players in Egypt are not simply passive victims of the structural factors impinging upon their ongoing political development. These include both popular mobilization associated with a revolution that ousts an authoritarian regime, and constitutional design to create a blueprint to new, democratic institutions. 

If the initial foray into democracy was the result of a revolution that brought down a long-lived authoritarian regime, then mobilized popular groups are much less likely to melt back into political irrelevance. The classic example is France. And if the initial democratic experiment was guided by a constitution blatantly engineered by outgoing autocrats, then elites are more likely to countenance a return to elected government after a coup that resets the political game. This has happened in the recent history of Pakistan and Nigeria. Both of these factors help explain why governments return more quickly to elected rule after a "reset" coup. 

Besides the obvious downside of being in a region suffused with dictatorships, several important factors for Egypt are rather propitious: it has a higher income per capita than most countries that quickly return to democracy after "reset" coups, and it has a relatively open, albeit declining, economy. 

On the political side, the news is mixed. The revolution that overthrew Mubarak emboldened civil society, which, as witnessed by the protests that catalyzed Morsy's overthrow, will not easily fold in the face of continued repression or trumped-up "emergency rule." As in other historical cases, this bodes well for the re-establishment of elected government, as witnessed by the military's unwillingness to rule directly as it did immediately after Mubarak's overthrow.

Regarding constitutional design, the Muslim Brotherhood's constitutions surely contributed to democracy's false start. It rammed through a document with little support outside of hardcore Islamists and in the process threatened powerful interests. This set the stage for the current turmoil. 

This time the military will most likely impose a more secular constitution beforehand with more reliable limits on executive authority. As in other cases of more heavy-handed constitutional engineering such as Chile or Turkey, this should bolster the prospects that democracy -- though a far less populist version -- will endure this time around.