A 30 year old computer whiz with a top secret security clearance works for an American company found to spy, on behalf of the National Security Agency, on United States citizens. He relinquishes a fine standard of living in service of the people, who, he thinks, ought to be aware of their government’s sordid surveillance programs. So he flies to China, then Russia, or maybe Cuba, carrying four laptops replete with intelligence. Is he a hero or villain?
Edward Snowden’s leaks caused civil libertarians to jump—no, throw themselves—at his defense. He was called a “hero” while the republican and democrat standard bearers called him a traitor. I thought it best to reserve judgment on the Snowden ordeal to allow a healthy dose of cynicism to temper my response.
Consider: what sense did it make for Snowden to release his information from China? It certainly appears odd to condemn one country’s Orwellian policies from the security of another who deliberately erases such events as the Tiananmen Square rally from its history books. Not to mention China and the United States have been engaged in their own digital war lately. And someone like Snowden, who was a network administrator, would have made for an extremely valuable intelligence asset. I wouldn’t be surprised if China said “Sure, we’ll let you leave and/or delay your extradition proceedings if you just let us see what you have in those laptops.” Ditto for Russia.
Or perhaps Snowden sought the safety of a country with heightened tensions with the United States specifically to decrease the chances of extradition. But again, why China? Hong Kong and the US cosigned an extradition treaty in 1996; why not venture straight to Ecuador, which accepts claims of political asylum? And the idea of Cuba really confounds me because the freedom Snowden espouses has not been seen in that nation since before the Castro regime. Hell, maybe it’s all some elaborate ruse to cover his tracks. I don’t know. I do know, however, that this nation hopping serves to further embarrass the United States and wake the populace.
Maybe that’s the point. For years it was easy to say the Glenn Beck-Alex Jones-tinfoil hat-types were simply in need of a dose of thorazine. Yet no one can deny that this nation has taken a tyrannical turn in the years since September 11th. No sane liberal can possibly defend The Betrayer in Chief Barack Obama—he’s simply a George Bush who supports gay marriage. Administration cronies like Eric Holder and Dick Cheney only differ in the amount of melanin in their skin. Politicians give speeches on immigration and gay marriage to drive an artificial wedge between voters who believe that they have some choice. The electoral establishment marginalizes third parties and so preserves the status quo. The media goes right along with it. The New Republic, for example, has already taken to demonizing Rand Paul, who looks pretty damn sane compared to the Obamas and Bushes and Clintons (like the one who signed DOMA) we’ve seen over the last few decades. Of course all he has to do is misspeak on an issue like abortion or sexuality and the media will instantly torpedo him (remember when George Stephanopoulos attacked Mitt Romney over the issue of birth control in the debate season?) The pageantry and two-faced nature of politics may have been what motivated Snowden to do what he did. Maybe if we all paid more attention to the issues we wouldn’t need these sort of wake up calls.
But I also want to make something else clear: not everyone with top secret data ought to wildly dispense it in the name of freedom. I’m fine not knowing what goes on at Area 51. There exists a legitimate need for maximum security for war machines, advanced weapons, polymers and so on. Still, the idea of secret courts and internet surveillance cannot sit well with any thinking person. Many will say “Well, Snowden should have reported his apprehensions to someone higher than him.” Right. If James Clapper, the head of the organization, directly lied about the existence of spying programs, would the vast majority of his underlings have had the rectitude to say or do anything? Apparently not.
In the end, despite my misgivings, I hope, and want to believe, that Snowden has done more good than harm. Though his actions make me suspicious, I still believe this nation and those who lead it have done a greater disservice to all of our liberties than any of the whistleblowers.