Tuesday, June 11, 2013

No Hero

Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker on Edward Snowden:

What, one wonders, did Snowden think the N.S.A. did? Any marginally attentive citizen, much less N.S.A. employee or contractor, knows that the entire mission of the agency is to intercept electronic communications. Perhaps he thought that the N.S.A. operated only outside the United States; in that case, he hadn’t been paying very close attention. In any event, Snowden decided that he does not “want to live in a society” that intercepts private communications. His latter-day conversion is dubious.


Snowden fled to Hong Kong when he knew publication of his leaks was imminent. In his interview, he said he went there because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.” This may be true, in some limited way, but the overriding fact is that Hong Kong is part of China, which is, as Snowden knows, a stalwart adversary of the United States in intelligence matters. (Evan Osnos has more on that.) Snowden is now at the mercy of the Chinese leaders who run Hong Kong. As a result, all of Snowden’s secrets may wind up in the hands of the Chinese government—which has no commitment at all to free speech or the right to political dissent. And that makes Snowden a hero?

The American government, and its democracy, are flawed institutions. But our system offers legal options to disgruntled government employees and contractors. They can take advantage of federal whistle-blower laws; they can bring their complaints to Congress; they can try to protest within the institutions where they work. But Snowden did none of this. Instead, in an act that speaks more to his ego than his conscience, he threw the secrets he knew up in the air—and trusted, somehow, that good would come of it. We all now have to hope that he’s right.

It is also a bit ironic that all of the recourses that Mr. Snowden had such as the federal whistleblower protections were put in place by the government after another such case of leakage: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers in 1971.  Why he felt he had to go to Glenn Greewald — whom I admire as an eloquent writer and advocate for civil liberties but not especially prone to nuance — is probably one of the more derpy aspects of the story.

2 barks and woofs on “No Hero

  1. Well, the “What did he think the NSA did, anyway?” thing is a bit over the top. Since I long ago had a job where I sent reports to the NSA daily, I kind of DO know what the NSA did….and it was NOT spy on American citizens at home. I would say that since Snowdon likely saw that change completely and figured all those whistle-blower bits and pieces were sure as hell no protection. Because this administration has no intention of listening to pleas for Constitutional privacies…..so of course he did not avail himself of those.

    • Ahem.

      We’re talking about a high school dropout who couldn’t even be arsed to get his GED, who couldn’t complete US Army basic training without damaging himself beyond ability to serve, who’s 29 NOW. That means in 2001, when the NSA’s great transformation was just beginning, he was 17 and still had his thumb stuck up his a## wondering what to do with his life and looking at the armed forces as a possibility. That’s a long way from computer analyst at a defense contractor. So the “Snowdon likely saw that change completely” is a bit off, since that change was well underway when Booz Allen thought he was good material just for a security guard, never mind the career path after that.

      Any way you slice it, though, he’s a very good argument against contracting out the kind of work that Booz Allen got.

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