Let’s try a mental exercise: Imagine that a Chinese intelligence analyst publicly defected to the United States, carrying a treasure of data and documents regarding the practices and procedures of the People’s Armed Police towards domestic resistance and agitation. And imagine that this analyst also carried documentation of the efforts of the People’s Liberation Army to attack Western defense and technology corporations.
This isn’t difficult; the defector would be lauded as a hero in the United States, a brave foe of the brutal Chinese security state, a lonely voice speaking out against the tyranny of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese requests for extradition would be met with some combination of laughter and indignation.
Of course, the United States isn’t the People’s Republic of China. Edward Snowden had plentiful opportunities to make his views regarding the extent of the national security state known without violating the law or committing espionage, although such arguments would not have received nearly as much attention without the illegal activity. The journalists who worked with Snowden are unlikely to face any charges at all, despite the inflammatory rhetoric of certain pundits and Congressmen. Snowden’s revelations challenge critical components of the U.S. national security state much more than they attack the fundamental legitimacy of the U.S. government.
Nevertheless, the national security apparati of China and the United States likely face some of the same problems, if not yet on the same scale. If leaks from low level operatives like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden can cause the U.S. national security bureaucracy such agony, imagine what someone with real access to power could manage? China already faced a version of this in the Wang Lijun-Bo Xilai affair, and the national security bureaucracies of the United States, Russia, and many other countries may soon have similar issues.
Under the Obama administration, the national security state has determined to counter the threat of leaks through aggressive prosecution and preventative identification. Under present technological conditions, this effort is probably doomed to fail. The security bureaucracies cannot screen out all of the discontents, or identify every problematic actor in the system. The ability of a discontented operator to contact and work with sympathetic journalists is magnified by modern communications technology, which allows the appropriation and transfer of tremendous amounts of data virtually at will.
In the United States, concern about leakers will likely reverse the trend of information-sharing between intelligence agencies initiated after the 9/11 attacks. Information will become more compartmentalized, tighter, and altogether less useful. In China, state control of the major media outlets ameliorates this problem, but if Chinese national security dissenters increasingly reach out to foreign or opposition sources, the CCP will face the same intelligence dilemma; information is only useful if it can be shared, yet sharing makes information more dangerous. The tools with which national security bureaucracies can gather than analyze information are ever more powerful, but these bureaucracies are simultaneously becoming more vulnerable to NGOs, and to their own members.