This Snowden NSA leak saga is doing strange things to me.
For starters, it has me obsessed. This real-time spy thriller has me scanning through the Internets, searching for the latest news and looking for any and all information about this snowy-white computer whiz kid that I can dig up. I want to know everything.
Freedom of information
I want to know more details about Snowden's life, like when he switched from believing that whistle blowers were traitors to believing that they are heroes.
I want to know the details of his military service, along with what Snowden's opinion might be about the fact that the US Army is declining to release his records. Would he condemn the government's refusal to reveal the truth, or would he applaud the government's respect for his right to privacy?
I want to know why the initial sensational reports by both The Guardian and The Washington Post about the PRISM Internet surveillance program had gotten the details of the NSA's access to information wrong, erring, of course, on the side of sensationalism.
I want to know the reasons behind The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald and The Post's Barton Gellman feud over which journalist Snowden contacted first.
I want to know more about this Snowden claim: "Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector, anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the ability to target everything. But I sitting at my desk certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a Federal judge to even the President if I had a personal e-mail."
I want to know all of Snowden's motives for revealing the information he revealed, why he chose the information he chose, and why he decided to present the information in the way he did. According to The Guardian, he began thinking about exposing government secrets while working for the CIA in Geneva, beginning in 2007, but decided that the CIA's secrets were not the right secrets to reveal: "Most of the secrets the CIA has are about people, not machines and systems, so I didn't feel comfortable with disclosures that I thought could endanger anyone." Does this mean that, rather than focusing on the work he was assigned to do, he spent his post-CIA career seeking out better secrets and figuring out ways to steal them? So far, Snowden has not given a straightforward answer when asked about this.
I want to know why, also according to The Guardian, he regards himself not as having committed a crime, but rather, as "the person exposing alleged criminality on the part of the Obama administration." None of the leaked documents point to the Obama administration having committed criminal acts, while clearly, Snowden committed the crimes of theft and conversion of government property according to the laws that are in place – more on this to come.
I really want to know how he could remain so invisible in the transit lounge at that Moscow airport, which has been crawling with reporters scanning the airport bars, overpriced restaurants, and reportedly huge duty-free shop for a glimpse of the ex-spook for over two weeks.
Knowing all of this stuff might just help me feel more like his exposure of a secret program that gathers massive amounts of metadata on citizens of the world, probably in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, in the case of domestic spying, was truly the act of a citizen who was concerned about the legality and ethics of the NSA's and other clandestine programs and less like he did it because he is a true believer in the philosophy that the executive branch – or perhaps just President Obama – holds too much power and that we have all become slaves to state tyranny.
Obviously, the surveillance programs need to be brought under better oversight, with more transparency than what exists right now, and I am glad that the domestic spying was unveiled so that champions like Senator Bernie Sanders (I, VT) along with Senators Mark Udall (D, CO) and Ron Wydn (D, OR), who have been sounding the alarm and demanding answers for years, can finally make some progress in reforming the system. The surveillance industry, like the prison industry and the military-industrial complex, is anti-democratic and ripe for abuse. These are massive, widespread, institutionalized programs that are run by career experts, outliving individual politicians and requiring long-term planning that functions to enhance their progress and resistance to change while they remain hidden behind a wall of secretive "necessity." They are so massive and so entrenched that to alter their inertia is a Herculean task. Because of all of this, extraordinary measures must be taken to prevent their abuse and to make sure that reform is possible. And for this reason, Edward Snowden deserves a great deal of credit for bringing the secret surveillance program into the light of public attention.
The oneness of means and ends
My biggest concern about Snowden's revelations is borne out in the comment section of any article by any journalist who is doing their job, which is to investigate the story and ask questions instead of just accepting things at face value. These journalists are routinely accused of trying to sideline the story about the extent of government hacking because they, themselves, must be government-paid hacks, as are any commenters who dare to ask relevant questions. Edward Snowden claims that all he really wanted was to start a discussion, but what kind of discussion can there be when his supporters, who range from privacy advocates and free-press protectors to libertarians, conspiracy theorists, social conservatives, are unwilling to discuss valid criticisms of the leaker, the process, or the outcome of the leaks beyond the fact that they unveiled a surveillance program that is in need of reform?
As I argued in my article on Snowden at Truthout.org, the character, actions, and motivations of Edward Snowden and other actors such as Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange are as integral to the story as the information being leaked is. These aspects cannot be separated from the entirety of the situation. The means to an outcome are not separate from the outcome. To the contrary, they shape and color the outcome in ways that the actors do not foresee, and this has certainly proven to be the case here, where the outcome of leaking top-secret information with such major implications has led to a surreal drama that includes pitting journalists and even entire global regions sniping at each other – not exactly a path to increased peace and freedom in the world.
Fundamentalism and Big Brother alarmism
Now, I have done my share of angrily bloviating about the danger of secrecy to democracy. Something else strange that this story is doing to me is making me defend the surveillance state against Snowden's leak, seemingly contradicting my own strongly held beliefs and values. It troubles me greatly that I would come to disagree with such heroes of mine as Daniel Ellsberg, Amy Goodman, Naomi Klein, and many others about this issue, leading me to believe that I might be on the wrong track, that I might decide that I am wrong to feel the way I presently do. After all, I was deeply ashamed for having attempted to rationalize Obama's decision to enact the military surge in Afghanistan back in 2009 – although I would like to think that I learned from my mistake. In this Snowden case, I have longed to find a position that reconciles my feelings of discomfort with what Snowden is doing with my principles concerning the corrosive effects of secrecy on democracy. So after a great deal of hand-wringing and parsing out the issues, I have come to the conclusion that this is about secrecy fundamentalism, and that this fundamentalism, tied to his disdain for the federal government of the United States that is so prevalent among libertarians, has shaped Snowden into a misguided zealot whose choices are not in the best interest of addressing the problem he is trying to solve.
My realization that fundamentalism can be applied to concepts beyond religion came in regard to freedom of speech, when I developed the argument that the free-speech fundamentalism that exists in the United States means that Christian and Jewish fundamentalists are free to purposely incite fundamentalist Muslims to violence and conflict in order to fulfill a prophecy, while placing some limits on such dangerous speech is a valid way to promote peace and democracy.
Fundamentalism, the strict interpretation and adherence to a principle or ideology, is incapable of critical self-examination or adjustment to changing social values and situations. It is unsophisticated and anti-progressive, and in its reductionism, it poses a great danger when applied to complex subjects. State secrecy, I would argue, is a complex subject, and freaking out over the Orwellian nature of government surveillance results from an exaggeration of reality that is comparable to homophobic fears about the slippery slide to bestiality and the downfall of civilization. After all, in Bernie Sanders' interview with Chris Hayes, he didn't advocate for getting rid of all surveillance programs. Rather, he specified Section 215 of the Patriot Act and said that Congress needs to narrow its scope. He also raised concerns about information gathering by private companies and warned of an Orwellian future, meaning that he doesn't think it is so just yet. Bernie Sanders is probably the most principled man in the US Congress today, thanks to being independent from both political parties, but he exhibits his progressive bonifides by consistently showing that he is capable of moderating his positions when the process of passing legislation calls for it, such as when it came to passing the landmark Affordable Care Act in 2010. This is a concept that Tea Party conservatives just don't get, and it is exactly why they make such horrible legislators.
Avoiding fundamentalism is something that all self-respecting progressives should endeavor toward, because not doing so can lead to contradictions such as freedom advocates turning to countries with low rankings in civil and political liberties (i.e. Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, according to Freedom House) and/or in press freedom (Russia, Ecuador, Venezuela, according to Reporters Without Borders), while the Committee to Protect Journalists has Russia, Ecuador, and Brazil on its "risk list" of the top ten worst countries for press freedom in the world – for protection and support. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" is a wartime philosophy that may serve in the short term but is not a sound long-term policy.
Edward Snowden's fundamentalist focus on secrecy and the alarmist way that the truth is being revealed is unsettling because it feeds the radicalism of ideologues from pro-lifers and uber-Zionists at World News Daily to the conservative hacks at Breitbart.com and more than one insomniac libertarian and, on the left, free-speech purists. Radical fundamentalism is the enemy of peace and freedom, regardless of political slant.
For those whose political slant is conservative or libertarian, the fears of Big Brother Obama are easy to fan, despite the fact that this NSA surveillance program is not really about the Obama administration, as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is overseen by Congress and the judges appointed by the Supreme Court chief justice. And Congress' involvement isn't limited to oversight. James Bamford's eye-opening March 2012 story in Wired magazine about the secret NSA data center in Bluffdale, Utah reveals this tidbit:
Last November a bipartisan group of 24 senators sent a letter to President Obama urging him to approve continued funding through 2013 for the Department of Energy’s exascale computing initiative (the NSA’s budget requests are classified). They cited the necessity to keep up with and surpass China and Japan. “The race is on to develop exascale computing capabilities,” the senators noted. The reason was clear: By late 2011 the Jaguar (now with a peak speed of 2.33 petaflops) ranked third behind Japan’s “K Computer,” with an impressive 10.51 petaflops, and the Chinese Tianhe-1A system, with 2.57 petaflops.
As Bamford explains, the international speed race is all about breaking encryption codes, and one of the purposes of the Bluffdale facility is to store massive amounts of encrypted information for the eventuality that the computers will one day be able to decrypt it.
Believe me, in my experience as an expat in Argentina and Uruguay, especially when I was editing two daily expat websites, I heard ALL about the "United States as evil empire" meme from other expats having fled the country for reasons ranging from fear of the One World Order, with its UN thugs, to anti-tax zealots trying to hide their wealth from the IRS thugs, with just a few of us citing deep disappointment and disgust with the war-mongering police-state thugs, a position I'm pretty sure has a lot to do with why Glenn Greenwald now lives in Brazil. I recently read Edwardo Galeano's The Open Veins of Latin America. I am a fierce critic of US foreign policy, the War on Drugs, and the export of militarism, and I am distraught about the use of drones and the force-feeding of hunger-striking inmates at Guantanamo. I totally agree that the United States is hypocritical, meddling, thuggish, and completely full of itself. And I suppose the US government deserves this outing of its secret surveillance network because it is so vast and out of hand.
However, I am very concerned about the methodology being employed by Snowden, Greenwald, and Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker who Snowden reached out to even before he contacted the journalists at The Post and The Guardian, to publicize the leaks, because this alarmist tactic is toxic. As I mentioned before, the initial reports by these two publications were incorrect in the key details about the NSA's access to the metadata of corporations like Facebook and Microsoft, but as we all learned long ago from the Drudge Report and Andrew Breitbart, once a rumor or untruth gets put out there, it lives a long and fruitful life on the Internet, regardless of any attempts to clear the story up.
And the problem hasn't ended with the first reports. Rather, the continuing allegations of spying operations seem intent on fomenting anti-US sentiment across the globe, and it makes me worry about the consequences – especially if, once again, the allegations turn out to be less than accurate or the caveats that explain how the headline is not as frightening as it appears are buried amidst hyperbole like this, from Greenwald's 7 July 2013 article in The Guardian:
That the US government – in complete secrecy – is constructing a ubiquitous spying apparatus aimed not only at its own citizens, but all of the world's citizens, has profound consequences... It radically alters the balance of power between the US and ordinary citizens of the world. And it sends an unmistakable signal to the world that while the US very minimally values the privacy rights of Americans, it assigns zero value to the privacy of everyone else on the planet.
Seriously, Glen, get a grip on yourself. We get it. The NSA surveillance network needs to be reformed, and you have incited enough outrage that it will be. You have done your job. But now, you run the risk of overplaying your hand and creating bigger problems because the United States, for all of its problems, has not yet become the Orwellian tyranny that you are making it out to be, and with this kind of language, it is you who is sending this message that the US government is out to crush freedom the world over.
As long as I am asking questions, Glenn, why didn't you – or anyone else, for that matter – report on this 25 June 2013 report by Stephen Aftergood at the Federation of Scientists' Secrecy News titled "Secrecy System Shows Signs of Contraction," which includes details such as how, in December 2009, President Obama issued executive order 13526 on reforming the security classification and declassification processes to augment government transparency? Could it be that it doesn't fit into your narrative that the Obama administration hates democracy and freedom?
There is enough grandstanding, backstabbing, intrigue, and drama queening in international politics already – especially among the leaders of Latin America, the queens among queens, although Barton Gellman's description of Snowden as being "capable of melodrama" indicates that he, along with Greenwald, is no slouch in this department – without having the excuse of Evo Morales' airplane being diverted for the hard-left populist leaders of South America to puff themselves up and grandstand before their state-run media about EEUU imperialismo. But in all of this theater, there are real consequences for regular people, as even before the airspace fiasco, Ecuador's communications minister "unilaterally and irrevocably" renounced the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, which provides for reduced tariffs on hundreds of millions of US dollars' worth of Ecuadorean trade, leaving the country's flower growers and other exporters in the lurch. It, of course, also doesn't help that Sen. Robert Menendez (D, NJ), head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, got in on the drama-queen act as well, threatening to block renewal if Ecuador offered asylum to Snowden. A few months ago, there were hopeful signs that Venezuelan and Cuban relations with the United States were warming, to the dismay of Republican hardliners in the United States and others who put their ideology above creating more stability in the Americas by forging positive relationships – but now?
The Church Committee
Now, about that quote that has appeared all over the Internet as of late by the late Sen. Frank Church (D, ID), a great statesman who, in 1975, chaired the senate committee that was set up to investigate US intelligence agencies for illegal activities after the Vietnam War. Never trust that an out-of-context quote means what the quoter's use of it would lead you to believe that it means.
The 8 September 1975 Newsweek article titled "No Place To Hide" catches readers' attention in dramatic fashion, breaking the news "that the country's most secret intelligence operation, the National Security Agency, already possesses the computerized equipment to monitor nearly all overseas telephone calls and most domestic and international printed messages-and that the NSA has made heavy use of its Orwellian technology."
But despite its use of "the Big O," the article goes on to discuss the need for this kind of intelligence gathering in the face of nuclear proliferation and the Cold War, even as first the Rockefeller Commission and then the Church Committee, which was much larger in scope and depth, had been charged with investigating intelligence service abuses. The nature of the abuses ranged from the subversion, sabotage, paramilitary action, and attempted assassination that the Church Committee would deem to be unauthorized illegal covert actions on the part of the CIA to domestic spying on antiwar activists and black power organizations by the NSA.
Found near the end of the article, the now-ubiquitous quote by Senator Church is from an appearance he made on Meet the Press a month earlier, where he stated that eavesdropping technology "at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything-telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter … I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America."
Two paragraphs later, the article concludes:
But the central issue raised by NSA's huge eavesdropping network is not really whether the agency has over stepped its authority. The point is that the scientific capability for this wholesale monitoring now exists, and where the capability exists, so too does the potential for abuse. It is the old story of technology rushing forward with some new wonder, before the men who supposedly control the machines have figured out how to prevent the machines from controlling them.
What this shows is that, way back in 1975, eight years before Edward Snowden was born into this world, the country was struggling with these same issues, and the intelligence network that has evolved since then did not develop entirely without regard to these complex dilemmas. The issues of keeping the laws up with the pace of technology and of finding a balance between secrecy and the democratic values of freedom and the right to privacy have been of concern to those who have been paying attention since the mid-70s, when such revelations as the FBI's COINTELPRO, the CIA's Family Jewels, and Nixon's dirty tricks were fresh and disturbing. It was a perilous world filled with perceived enemies of freedom, when the US government was truly more thuggish than it is perceived to be today because the intelligence community had evolved ad hoc, running ahead of any system of accountability. The Church Committee, lead by a true national hero, analyzed the problems in depth and made created a system of oversight that, not surprisingly, nearly 30 years later, in the wake of the Red Scare's definitive replacement by terrorism, is ready for more reform.
The Church Committee Reports show the great detail that the committee went into in its investigation of the legality of intelligence activities with the central aim of addressing the balance of secrecy and democracy:
The task of democratic government is to reconcile conflicting values.
The fundamental question faced by the Select Committee is how to reconcile the clash between secrecy and democratic government itself.
Secrecy is an essential part of most intelligence activities. However, secrecy undermines the United States Government's capacity to deal effectively with the principal issues of American intelligence addressed by the Select Committee:
-The lack of clear legislation defining the authority for permissible intelligence activities has been justified in part for reasons of secrecy. Absent clear legal boundaries for intelligence activities, the Constitution has been violated in secret and the power of the executive branch has gone unchecked, unbalanced.
-Secrecy has shielded intelligence activities from full accountability and effective supervision both within the executive branch and by the Congress.
-Reliance on covert action has been excessive because it offers a secret shortcut around the democratic process. This shortcut has led to questionable foreign involvements and unacceptable acts.
-The important line between public and private action has become blurred as the result of the secret use of private institutions and individuals by intelligence agencies. This clandestine relationship has called into question their integrity and undermined the crucial independent role of the private sector in the American system of democracy.
-Duplication, waste, inertia and ineffectiveness in the intelligence community has been one of the costs of insulating the intelligence bureaucracy from the rigors of Congressional and public scrutiny.
-Finally, secrecy has been a tragic conceit. Inevitably, the truth prevails, and policies pursued on the premise that they could be plausibly denied, in the end damage America's reputation and the faith of her people in their government.
For three decades, these problems have grown more intense. The United States Government responded to the challenge of secret intelligence operations by resorting to procedures that were informal, implicit, tacit. Such an approach could fit within the tolerances of our democratic system so long as such activities were small or temporary.
Now, however, the permanence and scale of America's intelligence effort and the persistence of its problems require a different solution.
These reports are essential reading, as they provide an indispensable historical perspective on the issues. Clearly, Senator Church's Meet the Press comment, uttered while he was in the midst of the investigations, shows that he was deeply concerned about the potential for abuse of the system, and the Church Committee Reports show that he was well aware of the tendency for intelligence community step outside of the bounds of constitutionality and to hoard the power of intelligence information in the name of national security, but he was by no means predicting that tyranny was inevitable. His intent was to highlight the vast scope of the capabilities of the new technology and gain support for the oversight of such powerful technology through the balancing of power among the three branches of the federal government.
On the bravery of being out of range
Edward Snowden took brash steps to steal and then pass to journalists for publication top-secret information about the NSA's domestic surveillance programs that are in need of better oversight to prevent possible abuse. He also stole and then passed on top-secret information about foreign intelligence programs, an act that is far more dubious in its valor because it treads into the arena of international relations, opening up a can of worms concerning the complicity of the governments of other nations in surveillance that verges on meddling in the internal affairs of foreign countries, with the collateral effect of doing the opposite of promoting peace among nations.
But it is Edward Snowden's attempt to run away and hide from the United States that really turns me off to the idea that he is a real "hero." This has been defended by many people who I highly regard on the grounds that he would not receive a fair trial at the hands of US law enforcement. But I reject this excuse in the name of all African-Americans, women and any other nonwhite male group who has ever been excluded from participation in the forging of laws under which they have been subject, many of which still have no chance of receiving fair treatment in all aspects of their lives. Every black person and undocumented immigrant in the United States today, other than regular old criminals and psychopaths, is a hero for trying to live their lives under an unjust system, and the biggest heroes are those who have fought to change the system in some way. The most effective way to create change is to dramatize the unjust nature of the system by disobeying the law and suffering unjust punishment – otherwise known as "civil disobedience." This is what makes Bradley Manning, William Binney, Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so heroic. The point is not only to defy the law, put to suffer the consequences, sacrificing the self to emphasize how morally wrong the laws are, to endure physical and mental pain and suffering, yet go on fighting.