Another view on Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

I have the kind of friendship circle and consume the kind of media where Edward Snowden is not a controversial figure. There may be people who think he should be executed for treason but they’re not the people who I generally listen to. In fact, the shrillness of their denunciations just seemed like further evidence that Snowden was a whistle-blower who had exposed an illegal NSA program.

So I was interested to read this persuasive alternative viewpoint from Slate journalist Fred Kaplan:

I regard Daniel Ellsberg as an American patriot. I was one of the first columnists to write that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper should be fired for lying to Congress. On June 7, two days after the first news stories based on Edward Snowden’s leaks, I wrote a column airing (and endorsing) the concerns of Brian Jenkins, a leading counterterrorism expert, that the government’s massive surveillance program had created “the foundation of a very oppressive state.”

And yet I firmly disagree with the New York Times’ Jan. 1 editorial (“Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower”), calling on President Obama to grant Snowden “some form of clemency” for the “great service” he has done for his country.

It is true that Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance of American citizens—far vaster than any outsider had suspected, in some cases vaster than the agency’s overseers on the secret FISA court had permitted—have triggered a valuable debate, leading possibly to much-needed reforms.

If that were all that Snowden had done, if his stolen trove of beyond-top-secret documents had dealt only with the NSA’s domestic surveillance, then some form of leniency might be worth discussing.

But Snowden did much more than that. The documents that he gave the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman and the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald have, so far, furnished stories about the NSA’s interception of email traffic, mobile phone calls, and radio transmissions of Taliban fighters in Pakistan’s northwest territories; about an operation to gauge the loyalties of CIA recruits in Pakistan; about NSA email intercepts to assist intelligence assessments of what’s going on inside Iran; about NSA surveillance of cellphone calls “worldwide,” an effort that (in the Post’s words) “allows it to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect.” In his first interview with the South China Morning Post, Snowden revealed that the NSA routinely hacks into hundreds of computers in China and Hong Kong.

These operations have nothing to do with domestic surveillance or even spying on allies. They are not illegal, improper, or (in the context of 21st-century international politics) immoral. Exposing such operations has nothing to do with “whistle-blowing.”

Kaplan also raises some uncomfortable questions about what precisely Snowden has told the Chinese and Russians.

He’s a Ron Paul supporting libertarian, a kind of person not exactly known for its pragmatism. As a result we can infer that he likely has a view on how far the intelligence apparatus could and should be shrunk that goes far beyond what voters or democratically elected politicians would accept. Is it really right that the boundaries of official secrecy are set by the person with the most expansive view of transparency with access to the NSA’s computer system?

I’m still not prepared to condemn Snowden but he’s a more complicated figure than people like me tend to admit.

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