Edward Snowden is another casualty, in the broadest sense of that word, of whatever Washington is now calling what used to be called the War on Terror, or the Long War. Like American soldiers and Afghan suicide bombers, Edward Snowden knew the personal risks and accepted them to serve what he considered a higher purpose.
No one can fault a government for prosecuting a Bradley Manning or an Edward Snowden if they violate laws so as to damage the national interest. But everyone should criticize inhumane treatment, prosecutorial misconduct, misuse of classification laws, the increased privatization of national security, excessive national secrecy, incompetent security programs, wasted tax dollars, sham oversight, lies to oversight committees, lies to the public, closed courtrooms, and abuse of power.
Governments certainly have a legitimate interest in keeping secrets, even though the grim truth is that all governments misuse this right to protect political parties from embarrassment, and to keep citizens uninformed or misinformed about some important matters.
In Edward Snowden’s case, we ordinary citizens have yet to discover whether his revelations damage the national interest in some way, or merely embarrass the government. Nearly every day, though, we learn more about NSA abuses, and we often learn about high ranking officials (like the author of the Patriot Act) who share our shock.
The people who seem to have learned something significant from Snowden’s disclosures are not terrorists, but the American public and our allies.
Personally, I do not trust the assurances of the intelligence bureaucracy or Congress, two institutions that thrive on lies. Whether or not Snowden’s whistle-blowing did any damage, our government has been exposed as violating the Constitution and lying about it to Congress and to the public.
Any terrorist who had not long ago assumed that western governments’ surveillance is deep and thorough is too stupid to survive long. Snowden’s revelations could not have surprised them.
Any ordinary American who does not understand that there are risks to ordinary Americans from secret government surveillance by an unaccountable bureaucracy is probably not much smarter.
Discrediting a whistle-blower like Snowden will be made very easy if the government has access to every email and telephone call. Thanks to President George W. Bush, the FBI can break into Snowden’s home (as they can break into yours), copy all of his computer files, and hide the fact that they did so. The TSA can legally do the same at any airport, seizing laptops and copying their contents without explanation. Thanks to President Obama, these abuses have continued and been expanded.
Some commentary distracts us from the serious issue of state surveillance by focussing on Edward Snowden as an individual. I understand that most people prefer human-interest stories and pop psychology to ideas and analysis, but some people who should be above that, like David Brooks of The New York Times, go out of their way to divert attention from large issues to amateur psychologizing about one person.
The effort to discredit Snowden (as a loner, for example, or high school dropout) demonstrates the vulnerability of ordinary people who oppose terrorists. In theory, a government could eventually have enough intimate knowledge to arrest or intimidate every citizen. We would all be cowed in to submission.
You personally have nothing to hide? Maybe your favorite candidate for the presidency or Congress does, and maybe that candidacy will be destroyed by NSA leaks of personal correspondence. Maybe your company’s trade secrets will be sold by a private contractor to a competitor, and your company will fold, taking your job with it.
Metadata ironically cost the job and much of the good name of a C.I.A. director, David Petraeus, when a search of metadata showed his connection to Paula Broadwell.
Imagine the potential metadata record of the Bush family connection with the bin Laden family. Combine that with the ability of a president (thanks to George W. Bush himself) to simply declare someone an enemy combatant and imprison him at Guantanamo, and you must realize that no one is safe.
As technology, bureaucracy, media noise and citizen complacency expand, we approach a time when the American government will have (and by computer quickly process) all of our emails and internet use. They might be there already.
Short term, I worry a little less about an Orwellian police state than I do about the commercial uses of this information. The internet is relentlessly driven by the commercial collection of data about you, dear reader, and the rest of us, so that we can be targeted with ads today, and perhaps denied health insurance tomorrow.
If you want a sense of how many companies are harvesting data about you, see what cookies are on your computer right now, then download and install Ghostery, a free program that will identify and thwart the covert tracking on those internet pages you visit.
If NSA and Homeland Security employ hundreds of private contractors, themselves employing hundreds of thousands of employees (like Edward Snowden) with access to your data, how many of them will eventually sell data? How much would one smartphone company spend to learn the secrets of its competitor? How many employees would sell data to China? How much more stock market manipulation will be possible?
David Brooks finds Snowden a sad example of disaffected, alienated geeks. Brooks’ general principles, like most of his political ideas, are centrist, bland and unexceptionable. Brooks actually lamented kids today who allow their consciences to trump their loyalty oaths and their career interests.
I hope that by now David Brooks has rethought that sense of priorities. We need more people who place the good of the country above self-interest, and Edward Snowden appears to be one of them.