It goes without saying that the debate over the government’s surveillance powers that was set off by whistleblower Edward Snowden is an important one. Who is invited to take part in that discussion really determines the kind of debate we’re likely to get.
So it was interesting to see who the CBS Evening News broadcast on June 9 chose to assess the story: The network’s own national security analyst, Juan Zarate.
Zarate was generally dismissive of Snowden’s claims–“it strikes me that he may be overstating his access,” he explained, and also accused Snowden of “aggrandizing himself a bit.” But Zarate stressed that there are important safeguards in place: The system
also has checks on what can be done with that information, and the National Security Agency and other intelligence community agencies spend a lot of money to make sure that analysts and others who have access to it are not doing things that are illegal or improper.
Well, that’s a relief.
When asked about the significance of the information Snowden shared with the Guardian and Washington Post, Zarate said, “These are important counterterrorism programs to the intelligence community,” but he diminished the importance of the leaks; these particular programs were, according to Zarate, more like a program to track terrorist financing, “which was found to be legal and effective.”
So not much to see here would seem to be the network analyst’s point. But who is he? Viewers might have been interested in knowing that Zarate was a counterterrorism official in the George W. Bush administration–as his bio at the right-leaning Center for Strategic & International Studies explains, “Zarate served as the deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism from 2005 to 2009.”
So he’s not just CBS‘s security analyst; Zarate worked, in the previous administration, in the policy areas where the controversial programs were developed. His take on Snowden, then, is not very surprising–he doesn’t think the programs he supervised were “illegal or improper.” But his direct connection to the issues at hand makes him a rather curious expert to interview as an impartial expert about the ramifications of Snowden’s whistleblowing.