I seem to be conflicted about the Edward Snowden case. I have been trying to figure out how to write about it for many days. Today, I decided to write about how and why I seem to be conflicted, hoping to elicit responses that help me figure out the national dilemma on this topic. Should we be incensed that an employee of an NSA contractor has the power to disrupt our nation’s security arrangements? Or should we be incensed that our nation’s security arrangements include secret government surveillance of citizens? In the latter perspective, Edward Snowden committed a noble act of civil disobedience to let his fellow citizens know what was going on. In the former, he is a traitor and has betrayed us to all of our enemies in the world.
We have really known since 2006, that as provision of the Patriot Act, the NSA monitored our communications, looking for terrorist activity. So, in a sense, what is the fuss? We knew. Did everyone forget? Perhaps there was a presumption that since Obama & Co. denounced such surrveilance in the the 2008 election that they would “do something about it”? I had no such presumption. Did you? That raises the question of how he is a traitor, if he is merely revealing what we already know about what the NSA does. If this is no revelation, then what is all the fuss about? Is he a traitor for reminding everyone about what is already known? That question raises another about what other information Snowden might have taken and what has he been doing with it while in China and Russia? There, that is an awkward question for those with the “noble defender of civil liberties” point of view.
Well, but officially, they are friends of ours, trading partners, and our president bows to them, or whispers friendly assurances to their leaders or shakes their hands very publicly. (At least he doesn’t kiss them, Carter-style.) Since this is an aspect of our national defense against terrorism, as long as Snowden is visiting Hong Kong and Moscow and not Tehran or some secret headquarters of Al Qaeda, then what is the big deal? Then, is it news that the US also watches what they can of China’s and Russia’s security communications? We know that they watch us and their outrage over any spying by anyone of the West is laughably hypocritical. We watch each other, and that is all about national defense.
But in that, the matter of where Snowden runs to for protection, some folks point out that he has no choice. America has influence everywhere. Who else can protect our freedom-fighter? Well, the sense that Russia and China have been enjoying sticking Snowden in the collective U.S. eye is unavoidable. Now even the execrable Julian Assange is in the game. The good news of the last couple of days, in a sense, is that Snowden seems to be avoiding going to Havana, maybe hoping to avoid a celebrity appearance in that more obvious U.S. enemy nation.
The latest news says that Snowden will go to Ecuador. The good news, bad news for him is that Ecuador’s national currency is the U.S. dollar. Good news? He won’t have to convert his currency and a dollar goes a long way there. We did nothing much when Ecuador put up Julian Assange and their newly re-elected President Correa is noted for making public anti-American statements, as those are popular there, although we can read all over the Googled place that the Ecuadorian government does all it can to promote U.S./Ecuador relations. The Obama Administration must be having one heck of a political time coping with complaints from its left-leaning supporters about protecting the “whistle-blower”. Maybe it would be as well to let Mr. Snowden spend the rest of his days on a Pacific coast beach, unmolested, save by the locals.
Then here is this, what if the media to-do, the “Where’s Edward” game of the current news cycle, is really all beside the point for U.S. citizens. The revelation or reminder about NSA monitoring of our communications is an argument, for some of us, that big government can do what it likes to us. Do we have to like it because national security is cited as a reason for it? Did Edward Snowden break the law? Yes he did. Did he break his oath? Yes, he did. We must do something, I suppose, to the law breaker as an example to the others. But I cannot help be a little grateful to him for the reminder that points out how big and how invasive our security apparatus has become, as regards citizen privacy.
Do we really need to have as much of this surveillance as our government says we must have in order to be safe? Certainly, those instruments of surveillance can be used for political purposes, against citizens, as desired, by those in authority over us, elected and unelected. In a good argument from Angelo Codevilla, “The Ruling Class Consensus On Domestic Spying“, he asks, “against whom, in the broad American public, is the US government likely to turn its animus?” I give you a bit of what he says, but suggest you read the whole thing.
Since our Intelligence agencies have an unbroken history of crowing about even tiny successes, using finely parsed assertions with zero evidence to impute multiple triumphs to programs publicized by a leak is prima facie evidence of insincerity. When (rarely) independent persons look behind such claims, they almost invariably find the Wizard of Oz. More important, anyone who has followed telecommunication technology and intelligence during the past three decades can only scoff at the claim that universal collection of telephone externals and access to internet traffic can thwart serious criminals or terrorists.
In fact, the expansion of the US government’s capacity to intrude on innocent communications happened just as technology enabled competent persons who intend to hide their communications to do so without fail. This means that the US government’s vast apparatus is almost completely useless against serious terrorists or criminals, and useful primarily to do whatever the government might choose to innocent persons…
It is not speculation to expect that these powers will be used for what they are indeed useful. To recapitulate: “Constant Informant” can find patterns of communication between people who are not trying to mask them, while PRISM makes everyone’s cyber activity accessible. This allows the US government to pick and choose and build cases for any reason against any person on whom it has such data. From Obama to Rove, our ruling class denies any intention of doing that. They cite the fact that focusing all that data onto on individuals is subject to approval by the FISA court.
But that court acts not just in secret, but ex parte – hearing only one side. FISA was intended to be a rubber stamp, and has been one. To anyone’s knowledge, it has never turned down any of the government’s thousands of applications. It will continue to be a rubber stamp because there are no judicial criteria for what is and is not a legitimate national security concern.
Do read the whole thing and then, please, have at it.