11/07/2013 04:55 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Folly of the Data Chase

When I prepared to retire from the U.S. Army after 35 years of continuous service, there were a few people here and there "mentioning" my name as a potential candidate to lead the National Security Agency (NSA). I was the senior officer of the Signal Corps and I knew a thing or two about acquiring and handling sensitive information.

Some of those mentioning me were credible people with inside political contacts and I was keenly interested in the job. I had the energy, know how and political savvy to change the way NSA was doing business, and I would have. I was well aware of the oncoming onslaught of cyber defense and technologies evolving from the Strategic Defense Initiative. I saw even then that NSA was headed in the wrong direction - gearing up for the wholesale acquisition of masses of information that it could never handle effectively. I would have made substantive changes in the way NSA did business, which is probably why I did not get the job. Hell hath no fury like a bureaucracy threatened.

If the treachery of Edward Snowden has had any positive impact, it must surely be to expose the folly of NSA's headlong rush into data acquisition without adequate consideration of the consequences. We now know that NSA has been monitoring Internet and telephone communications all over the globe, including that of American citizens and leaders of foreign nations friendly to the U.S. Congress is supposed to keep an eye on national security agencies but in this, as in so many things, Congress has been derelict in its duty in recent years.

That an irresponsible individual like Snowden could get his hands on so much secret data is in itself telling evidence against NSA's prolific distribution of security clearances to millions of people. When I was head of the Signal Corps and had sensitive information in my hands, I limited it to the fewest number of individuals as possible, and kept an eye on them. But then I was determined that we would acquire information that we had sufficient resources to analyze effectively so we could provide reliable advice to our political leadership. In its quest to tap everyone's phone, NSA has opened the floodgates to much more information than it can handle, so it ends up handing over highly sensitive data to government contractors like Snowden who simply have no sense of responsibility, either to the agency or our country.

Snowden is now beginning a campaign for clemency, insisting he should not be prosecuted for his treachery because he has exposed NSA activities. But while our government has much to answer for in terms of empowering people like Snowden, it does not absolve him of the harm he has done to our country. He belongs in the same class as Benedict Arnold, and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law if we ever get our hands on him. At the same time, the people at NSA need to do some serious soul searching and Congress needs to exercise its oversight function. We need to seriously rethink our approach to national security intelligence gathering.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.