10 June 2013
Starting with a GED, Edward Snowden rose to a position that gave him access to classified National Security Agency documents and the responsibility to protect them. He has lived through a decade of disillusion. He tells Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, to whom he leaked the documents showing some of the breadth of the U.S. government's "metadata" collection operations, that he had once been enthusiastic to join in the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein, only to learn that most of his comrades-in-arms simply wanted to kill Arabs. He had hoped that Barack Obama would end many of the Bush Administration's intrusive policies, only to see the new President do the opposite. He hopes he has exposed systematic government overreach into citizens' private lives that has lasted through changes of party control in the White House and Congress. But many Americans will interpret Snowden's story only in terms of whether or not it damages President Obama. Others debate whether Snowden is a "hero," like Bradley Manning, or a "traitor," like Bradley Manning, or significantly different from Manning. Snowden himself opts for "different," noting that Manning's leaks named names and possibly endangered people, while his own put no one in jeopardy. He has holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room since leaking, but the latest report as I write is that he has checked out, possibly on his way to some country that will give him asylum. He claims that the programs he has exposed pose "an existential threat to democracy." This is a slippery-slope argument. A commitment to prevent terrorism in itself is no such threat, but the tools the government uses obviously can be used toward different ends. That has been the great fear since the Patriot Act was first debated: that the government will be empowered to suppress dissent in the interest of suppressing terrorism. Those fears can't just be dismissed as paranoia, but at the same time we can't disregard the imperative to try to prevent mass murder, and we can't act as if no one is planning mass murder. We can put our house partly in order by ending the foreign policies that provoke foreigners (and their domestic sympathizers) to action, but there are more reasons we can imagine -- because many are actually unreasonable -- for individuals to start shooting suddenly. The Santa Monica shooter last Friday killed more people than the Boston Marathon bombers. Since he seems to have had personal issues, it's doubtful that the NSA's operations monitoring international calls, etc., would have exposed his intent to kill. But if you want to prevent as many amoklaufs as possible, there is no prevention without surveillance. It should be possible to concede that the government goes too far in some respects without insisting on a utopian ideal of a world without surveillance. People will have to change before governments can. Snowden says he doesn't want the news to be about him as a person, so let's take him at his word. We should debate not what the government should do to him, but what we want from or should do about our government.