Sunday, July 21, 2013

Will We Someday Celebrate Edward Snowden Day?

It remains unusual for a young man to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize while Michael Hayden, the former CIA director compares him to Benedict Arnold and darkly warns that this "betrayal" will become the costliest to American intelligence and American security:

Hayden overestimates Snowden's foresight, calling it arrogance, and underestimates his abilities, insisting that the contents of Snowden's laptop "must" have been harvested by the Russians and the Chinese.  

You mean the man who made it to Hong Kong and Moscow with the NSA in his pocket couldn't hide or destroy compromising data if he wanted to?

That's just the thing about which no one seems to be able to agree.

Jimmy Carter seems to be one of Snowden's supporters:

Dick Cheney wants him "hunted to the ends of the earth."  No surprises there.

A worst-case scenario says that Snowden's judgement is abysmal.  Alternatively, he's planned everything brilliantly, and the lengthy stopover in the Moscow airport is all going just as expected.

Or he's winging it while hoping to land on his feet as the good whistleblower.

Every time I Google Snowden, I find at least one journalist calling him "mind-bogglingly naïve" and another calling him a manipulative, Machiavellian so-and-so.

I am sure he is working for greater appreciation of privacy in a world of people who don't understand what the loss of privacy means.

A Russian friend is sure he must now be working for Putin.

Edward Snowden may be our newest Rorschach test.  But that test showed more about the test maker than the testee. 

I wonder about the pressures on Snowden and about how resilient he is; I applaud his bravery, and I think both his actions and those of the U.S. government and the NSA are part of a long, Puritan-inspired tradition of self-examination and exceptionalism that routinely produce bouts of paranoia far more harmful than the situations they were intended to control.*

The U.S. Government and the NSA operate under the assumption that rigorous surveillance makes possible the prevention of attack.  But it is, Artistotle said, "a part of probability that many improbable things will happen." (Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI, sect. 2, 1139b).

Some disasters can be prevented, some bad guys can be caught in the nick of time, just like in a James Bond movie.  Some, despite or because of the best intentions, cannot.  The United States has a pronounced history of destructive overreaction to perceived threats.   Every tyrant creates his or her worst enemies, and what America has done to Arab-Americans will cause, at the most optimistic, several generations worth of problems.  Just as the Japanese-Americans are beginning to heal . . .

So, is Snowden's legacy going to be that he is a "costly leaker of secrets?" Or that he bravely defended privacy?  I'm with the Germans on this--I think he's both.  He's costing the U.S. money, power and prestige without having any impact whatsoever upon actual national security, in the sense of the safety of American citizens.   He is defending our need to decide what we keep to ourselves and what we show to the world.

And I'll let him have the last word:

* Here is my favorite statement on political paranoia:

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are to arrive today.

Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
What laws can the Senators pass any more?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws.

Why did our emperor wake up so early,
and sits at the greatest gate of the city,
on the throne, solemn, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
And the emperor waits to receive
their chief. Indeed he has prepared
to give him a scroll. Therein he inscribed
many titles and names of honor.

Why have our two consuls and the praetors come out
today in their red, embroidered togas;
why do they wear amethyst-studded bracelets,
and rings with brilliant, glittering emeralds;
why are they carrying costly canes today,
wonderfully carved with silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today,
and such things dazzle the barbarians.

Why don't the worthy orators come as always
to make their speeches, to have their say?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today;
and they get bored with eloquence and orations.

Why all of a sudden this unrest
and confusion. (How solemn the faces have become).
Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly,
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?

Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
And some people arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1904)


  1. The Critical Mom's facebook account seems to have been hacked or vanished and I have been asked to supply a new password--which took me directly to another account I had closed months, if not years ago. I hope I can sort this out with the unbelievably inaccessible facebook. Maybe they'll read this comment and fix things. (Pie in the proverbial SKY)

  2. I like the way you put it -- Snowden as a Rohrschach test.

  3. Thanks. He does seem to elicit extreme responses. What on earth is Obama really doing?
    The Critical Mom's facebook page seems to be okay again, thanks to the intervention of the technically-savvy 14-year-old, who let me know it was "obvious" what I had done wrong . . .

  4. As a retired military person and now government employee, I just have to disagree with your remark about his "bravery." I remind you he signed an oath (the same I signed) that he would safeguard sensitive and classified information. It's not for him (nor I) to unilaterally decide that one can violate that oath and release information, whether in protest or some dream of helping others. He signed an oath; he was trusted; he belied that trust.

    He was not brave; he could have disagreed with his government in so many ways, but not by publishing sensitive information.

    I'll quote President Eisenhower from 1959 (speaking about US intelligence services):

    "Success cannot be advertised: failure cannot be explained. In the work of intelligence, heroes are undecorated and unsung, often even among their own fraternity. Their inspiration is rooted in patriotism — their reward can be little except the conviction they are performing a unique and indispensable service for their country, and the knowledge that America needs and appreciates their efforts."

  5. Dear JRG, Thank you very much for writing. I understand the serious issue of taking an oath. But I question what happens when the military, or the government, or the institution to whom one swears an oath, seems to re-define the operation they wish to keep secret, or never really defined, or revealed it, or abuses the use of secrecy. I don't really know--who does really know--what happened, but the appearance of Snowden's honesty to me speaks volumes, specifically his assertions that surveillance is being abused. If Snowden had come to his superiors and said, "I think this is abusive," or been to a military lawyer, could he have made either the government or the ordinary citizen aware in the way that he has? I'd be interested in hearing more from you and anyone else who either disagrees with my position or wishes to clarify some aspect of this case.

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  7. I wanted to add a question: when is it right to break an oath to one's country? Is the abuse of privacy so extreme, or gratuitous, that no excuse of being on the lookout for terrorists can justify it? Did the technology exposed by Snowden already exist right after 9/11? I ask myself that when I read Moustafa Bayoumi's account of persecution of Arab-Americans by the American government, and specifically by the FBI. (See this summary, the book is well worth reading). If, as many of these stories suggest, the FBI knowingly rounded up innocent people, what kind of country am I a citizen of?

  8. For everybody, on all sides of this controversy: