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Chasing Edward Snowden: What's the plot?

NSA leak movie would be a snooze

Jul. 21, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By STEVEN L. KATZ   |   Comments

In the wake of the 2013 Oscar award-winning and nominated films that included Best Picture winner “Argo” and nominee “Zero Dark Thirty,” Hollywood may already be wrapping up filming of “Chasing Edward Snowden.” Zero Dark Thirty premiered nine months after President Obama announced to the world that the U.S. had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

However, the real challenge involved in producing such a movie is that the story surrounding Snowden rests so heavily on matters that are, well, mundane and bureaucratic. Yes, Snowden revealed perhaps the most explosive state secrets of our time and sparked a vigorous national debate over the balance between privacy and security. Yet at the heart of “Chasing Edward Snowden” lies the complicated, essential-to-understand but not necessarily intriguing story of America’s “ghost government” of contractors that has prevailed for decades across agencies working in intelligence, defense and homeland security. The greatest irony is that the government is so dependent and reliant on the “ghost government” that it will have to hire contractors to figure it all out. “Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!”

Snowden was a symptom waiting to explode, but the millions of pieces that our government is now trying to put back together are, by nature, an expanding, atomistic collection of people, systems and programs whose lack of cohesion is at the core of the government’s managerial and accountability problems today. The extent of the dysfunction and its impact on public trust reached new heights with the early July admission by National Intelligence Director James Clapper that his statement to Congress under oath in March regarding the extent of National Security Agency surveillance was erroneous.

Perhaps Steven Spielberg could develop a Hollywood story from the events to date. “Chasing Edward Snowden” already resembles two of his films: “Catch Me If You Can,” in which a skilled check forger named Frank Abagnale Jr. evades a dogged FBI agent, played by Tom Hanks, until his arrest years later in France. Abagnale was so skilled that he ended up working for the FBI to catch other check forgers. It is most unlikely, however, that Snowden’s future includes ever serving as a federal employee or contractor again. Instead, the movie that “Chasing Edward Snowden” most resembles is “The Terminal” — Spielberg’s next film featuring Tom Hanks, this time playing an Eastern European immigrant who makes a temporary home while stranded in New York’s JFK airport.

Even an edgier director like Oliver Stone might have trouble getting his arms around the plot of “Chasing Edward Snowden.” It is simply too mundane.

Is it that compelling a plot, for example, that the NSA is conducting widespread surveillance using technology and programs that cast a wider net than what Congress and other authorities appear to have authorized? Hollywood might be more interested if it knew what the net has captured.

Or is it that compelling a plot that a late-twenty-something’s uber cyber skills landed him jobs with high-level security clearances and employment in sensitive government and government contracting positions without formal education credentials? It turns out that between one and two of every 10 employees at Google lacks a college degree.

Or is it that compelling that hackers, including those participating in annual hacking competitions such as the Global CyberLympics, are sought by federal agencies and contractors for their ability to showcase their talent? Or that a millennial generation member like Snowden has an information aggregation habit? How many thousands of songs and other media have your kids downloaded onto their phones, legitimately from iTunes, friends or from sources such as Limewire before the 2010 injunction of distribution of its downloading software?

While Hollywood awaits a more interesting storyline for “Chasing Edward Snowden,” the president, Congress and our agencies must grapple with the mundane matters.

Government must assess the question of its mission, strategy, programs and processes and determine the people and skills it needs to perform these from the perspective of strengthening government’s own institutional capacity and strength.

Policymakers must come to grips with the government’s heavy reliance on contractors and be honest about its origins, politics, the roles and interests of all involved, and the need for leadership to address and correct the managerial vulnerabilities that exist.

Government must break the hold of the highly politicized procurement labyrinth spun across government that ties the hands of managers. Even when their good government senses tell them to screen, supervise and manage the contract personnel to ensure quality work and results, managers place themselves at risk of investigation for violating the personal service contract regulations. It is possible that no one beyond the outsourced security clearance company or a midlevel contracting officer’s technical representative (COTR) saw the pile of resumes that included Snowden’s.

Together with the problems that plague all of the most scintillating scandals occurring in Washington — from multimillion-dollar conferences to IRS scrutiny of politically oriented nonprofits — the ongoing plot that government must grasp, prepare for and prevent is simple: The mundane can kill you.

Something you will never see in a movie is how these underlying problems erode public confidence and trust in our government.

Steven L. Katz served as counsel on the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, where he assisted former committee chairman Sen. John Glenn in the writing, research and passage of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act.

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