07/08/2013 02:51 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

Snowden Unmasks the True Aggressor in Cyber-Warfare: The United States

Edward Snowden told America and the rest of the world two things that really matter:

  1. The US government is spying on US citizens (as well as Brazilians, Australians, Germans, Brits, etc.);
  2. The US government is the instigator of international cyber-attacks and not the victim.

Much has been written about the first disclosure. In official US circles, there's feigned outrage: among the offended is John Kerry, who solemnly told us that terrorists are now changing their communications techniques, and "people may die as a consequence." But this makes little sense. Al Qaeda knew its operatives were under electronic surveillance. That's why they've been using human couriers for years.

The second disclosure has received less attention in the U.S., but it's equally important. As our mid-eastern wars wind down (the Iraq adventure is formally over, and Afghanistan will end next year), we've begun to hear a steady drumbeat toward cyberwar - from the White House, the Pentagon and elements in the Congress. This year and last we've heard increasingly alarmist news about cyber attacks by China, Iran, unspecified terrorist groups and hacktivists.

But Snowden revealed that China is defending itself from US cyberattacks. So is Iran. He also showed that, when it comes to hacking and cyber-terror, the United States is way out in front of hacktivist collectives and Islamic cyber jihadists.

The world is not surprised at this, although many of us are. Unlike European empire-building, our aggression is a unique phenomenon. From the 16th through the 19th centuries, the British, French, Belgians, Dutch and Portuguese took their turns unapologetically sacking Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Come the 1950s, though, with Europe in post-war ruins, the position of senior empire builder was vacant. The US selected itself.

But there was a problem for American empire promoters: a strong strain of protectionism and isolationism in American politics. When our forebears got here, they were fleeing wars, pogroms and persecution. We have an ocean between us and that Old World madness. More recent Latin American, African, Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants are also escaping war. So corporate globalizers face stiff resistance to free trade agreements and frivolous wars. Twice in the past fifty years our presidents lied to get us into pointless wars: Johnson lied when he said our ship had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, and George W. Bush lied when he said Saddam Hussein was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. They lied because we approve war only when we believe it's defensive. The Pentagon is the Defense Department and no longer the War Department.

Soon, we'll be without a war for the first time in 13 years. Most of us find that a relief. Maybe we'll actually get the peace dividend we anticipated in the 1990s. God knows we need it. We have a huge public debt and our budget is out of control. But many "defense" contractors are not so relieved. They're on the military gravy train and they're not getting off.

And so, starting last year, we became the increasingly endangered victim of cyber-warfare.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the Pentagon and American intelligence agencies are seeing an increase in cyber threats that could become as devastating as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks if they aren't stopped.

A cyber attack perpetrated by nation states or violent extremist groups could be as destructive as the terrorist attack of 9/11," Panetta said last night. "Such a destructive cyber terrorist attack could paralyze the nation.

Then there's Michael Hayden's hysteria, displayed on the Hill a year ago: "The Most Dangerous Tools in the Most Dangerous Hands." According to Hayden, who is now a principal at the Chertoff Group, a lucrative security consulting firm run by former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, the most dangerous tools are cyber-weapons and the most dangerous hands are hacktivists. General Hayden, incidentally, is also the former director of the NSA and the CIA.

There's a lot of money at stake in convincing Americans that cyber-warfare is needed for protective purposes:

The United States spends far more than any other country on defense and security. Since 2001, the base defense budget has soared from $287 billion to $530 billion -- and that's before accounting for the primary costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Edward Snowden exposed the fact that the costly new war we're about to have in cyber-space is a US production. The United States is not a helpless victim of cyber-attacks. Our posture is fundamentally aggressive, and if we don't want a cyberwar, then we could avoid starting one.

We want to believe that we're a peaceful nation, prompted to act aggressively only by deadly provocation, such as Pearl Harbor or 9/11. It's not an accident that Panetta invoked September 11. The specter of another attack is terrifying.

But we, the United States, attacked Iran with Stuxnet. We spy on our allies, help them spy on their citizens, and we steal secrets from civilian institutions in China:

Part of Snowden's revelations that are most damaging in our discussion of cybersecurity with China is his making it clear that we have gone well beyond penetrating China's government and military networks; we've gotten into their universities, their research centers and presumably into major enterprises, too.

Snowden gave us a chance to stop this before the Chertoff Group, SAIC, CACI, Lockheed and the rest of them are unstoppable. Once we're into a cyberwar, it's over. The war will be invisible, secret and eternal - conducted with our tax dollars, but without our knowledge. It will not be conducted on our behalf. And if we try to end it, we'll be unable to organize because we, too, are under surveillance. Snowden also told us that.

We should pay attention.

Bea Edwards is Executive & International Director of the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection organization.