Here’s a roundup of recent comments on whistleblower Edward Snowden. Two highly supportive: Daniel Ellsberg points out that the culture was far more receptive to him in 1971 than it is to Snowden today, and he had the ability to speak out even after he was indicted; and Steve Walt calling on Obama to pardon Snowden for the enormous service he has already done. Then there’s a hardboiled statement rationalizing the government’s treatment of Snowden, from an Israeli, thanks to a liberal organization, Americans for Peace Now.
[Update: And praise from investigative journalist James Bamford too.]
First, Daniel Ellsberg says that Snowden had no choice but to flee, writing in The Washington Post and reflecting on his own relatively favorable treatment of 1971:
[W]hen I surrendered to arrest in Boston, having given out my last copies of the papers the night before, I was released on personal recognizance bond the same day. Later, when my charges were increased from the original three counts to 12, carrying a possible 115-year sentence, my bond was increased to $50,000. But for the whole two years I was under indictment, I was free to speak to the media and at rallies and public lectures. I was, after all, part of a movement against an ongoing war. Helping to end that war was my preeminent concern. I couldn’t have done that abroad, and leaving the country never entered my mind.
There is no chance that experience could be reproduced today, let alone that a trial could be terminated by the revelation of White House actions against a defendant that were clearly criminal in Richard Nixon’s era — and figured in his resignation in the face of impeachment — but are today all regarded as legal (including an attempt to “incapacitate me totally”).
I hope Snowden’s revelations will spark a movement to rescue our democracy, but he could not be part of that movement had he stayed here. There is zero chance that he would be allowed out on bail if he returned now and close to no chance that, had he not left the country, he would have been granted bail. Instead, he would be in a prison cell like Bradley Manning, incommunicado.
Yes and elite journalists have done nothing to support Snowden, as David Sirota pointed out in his Journalists Against Journalism Club post at Salon. I think the draft has a lot to do with this, the elites don’t really care about these wars because helots are carrying them out, and they are free to shop on-line.
Now here is Steve Walt in the Financial Times urging Obama to pardon Snowden, because he will one day be seen as a hero. Note that Walt is also, bravely, describing an entire official culture in which dissent is frowned upon, discouraged, punished. And journalists are its handmaidens.
Mr Snowden’s motives were laudable: he believed fellow citizens should know their government was conducting a secret surveillance programme enormous in scope, poorly supervised and possibly unconstitutional. He was right.
Thanks to Mr Snowden, we now know that officials and private contractors have been collecting vast amounts of information about ordinary Americans and conducting unprecedented levels of spying on US allies. We know key officials lied on Capitol Hill about what the NSA was doing, casting doubt on the quality of Congressional oversight. By going public, Mr Snowden reminded us that secret programmes undertaken in the name of national security are extremely difficult to control….
Once a secret surveillance system exists, it is only a matter of time before someone abuses it for selfish ends. Richard Nixon kept his own “enemies list” and used the Central Intelligence Agency to spy on American citizens. Former Federal Bureau of Investigation director J Edgar Hoover helped keep himself in office by collecting dirt on officials.
Fear of exposure threatens to stifle the dissent and debate that is essential to healthy democracy. Governments already classify much of what officialdom is doing and selectively leak information to influence public opinion, so citizens must rely on journalists, academics and principled individuals such as Mr Snowden to find out what our “public servants” aren’t telling us. But if critical voices are cowed by the possibility that their personal lives will be revealed, those in power will be harder to monitor and policy errors will go uncorrected.
Pardoning Mr Snowden would surely provoke howls of protest from the intelligence community, which hopes to deter future leakers by making an example of him. But a pardon for him is unlikely to trigger a wave of imitators; how many other insiders would sacrifice their jobs and risk their freedom because Mr Snowden got a reprieve? And if a few did follow suit and exposed government wrongdoing, society as a whole would benefit.
History will probably be kinder to Mr Snowden than to his pursuers, and his name may one day be linked to the other brave men and women – Daniel Ellsberg, Martin Luther King Jr, Mark Felt, Karen Silkwood and so on – whose acts of principled defiance are now widely admired.
And PS if you say that Snowden has kicked off an important debate, as Obama has said, then why not honor that action?
[Update] Intelligence expert Bamford, in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Q: What do you make of Edward Snowden’s actions?
A: With regard to the information he released on domestic surveillance, I consider him a whistleblower. He revealed details of massive violations by the NSA of the privacy rights of all Americans. The NSA has no constitutional right to secretly obtain the telephone records of every American citizen on a daily basis, subject them to sophisticated data mining and store them forever. It’s time government officials are charged with criminal conduct, including lying to Congress, instead of going after those exposing the wrongdoing.
Finally, I must say I found it distressing to be lectured by an Israeli about civil liberties, at the behest of a liberal Zionist organization– Americans for Peace Now. If a liberal organization is rationalizing the US surveillance policy, why do we need conservatives?
“Hard Questions, Tough Answers” with Yossi Alpher was sent out yesterday. Alpher says that the US government went too far, but we should all pretty much get used to it as the norm. “The surveillance will continue, by all concerned, with or without a Snowden and the ’embarrassment’ he has caused. Let’s hope the terrorists don’t learn too much from his revelations.”
There is no respect here for a political culture of dissent. No, the hardboiled Alpher mocks those who are outraged for their naivete. This is my main problem with the Israel lobby, how it has brought bad ideas to America.
Here’s his entire answer:
Peace Now: what is your take as an ex-intelligence official on the Snowden revelations?
Alpher: Reactions in the western world and beyond vary from ignorance to hypocrisy.
Last Friday night, I lay in bed watching a late movie: the action film The Bourne Memorandum, the third in the “Bourne” series. Here is a movie made in 2007 that demonstrates in a technically impressive manner the NSA techniques for intercepting cell-phone calls and emails worldwide that Snowden “revealed” in 2013. Why did it not seem credible six years ago?
The angry publics in Europe and the United States are, to my mind, amazingly or perhaps willfully ignorant of the fact that intelligence services, along with hackers and criminals, have had easy access to their cell phones and internet accounts for years. Anyone carrying out a transaction that is in any way sensitive using these media should have long ago been aware of this.
So much for ignorance. The hypocrisy begins with the angry reactions of governments to the news that the US and UK have been listening in on them. After all, these governments do the same thing to the US and UK. The faux surprise and anger, for example, at Snowden’s revelation of the bugging of easy-access computers posted for Russian officials to use at an international conference in the UK is plain ridiculous. You can be sure the Russians, Germans and others knew perfectly well that their open communications were being intercepted and behaved accordingly.
This begs the question: don’t international terrorists also know their communications are being intercepted? Presumably; but that is not the point. Because global terrorism cannot function halfway efficiently without reliance on these media, the very fact of electronic surveillance radically reduces terrorist activity: witness al-Qaeda in recent years and Osama Bin Laden’s hermit-like existence prior to his death. Moreover, the reason intelligence agencies couldn’t care less about your emails and cell-phone calls is that their sophisticated computers are looking for patterns, key words and suspicious phone numbers and email addresses that, through careful analysis, can indeed still point to bad guys.
The surveillance will continue, by all concerned, with or without a Snowden and the “embarrassment” he has caused. Let’s hope the terrorists don’t learn too much from his revelations. As for the issues of accountability, civilian monitoring and constitutional rights, the US government does indeed appear to have gone too far, and a balance must now be found that does not compromise the genuine issues of security.
The Snowden revelations also remind us that the US government’s intrusive superpower behavior extends to many walks of global life besides electronic communications. For example, in an effort to police money-laundering, drug trafficking, terrorist financing and even tax collecting, the United States has arbitrarily extended the safeguards and restrictions of its own financial institutions far beyond American territory. It demands that foreign banks monitor transactions among themselves in what is at times a draconian manner. American citizens living outside the US are instructed by their foreign banks to fill in Internal Revenue forms or risk having their accounts closed. My bank in Israel had to establish a “compliance committee” just to keep track of what the Americans demand.
From Israel to Switzerland, everybody obeys these American dictates because they are backed by economic clout and superpower status. We can almost certainly expect more, not less.