Thank You Mr. Snowden, Also You Are a Coward and a Scoundrel
Conor Friedersdorf is calling out a particular kind of illogic in his recent post on “Privacy Moderates.” Specifically, he cites those who think both that the current surveillance regime needs to be altered and that Edward Snowden acted wrongly, as being not just hypocritical but incoherent.
“What if I told you that the surveillance state goes too far in secretly spying on innocent Americans — but that Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who exposed the scope of data collection, and Glenn Greenwald, the recipient of his leaks, shouldn’t be regarded as exalted heroes?
That sort of non sequitur isn’t my style. But if I wrote such a sentence in earnest, you’d know to identify me as a ‘privacy moderate.'”
To make his point concrete, Conor uses something James Traub of Foreign Policy wrote recently as an example. Traub’s position as a moderate is established once he claims that while the U.S. government has abused its power, advocates like Glenn Greenwald, and those individuals praising Edward Snowden, go too far in both overstating the dangers posed by the government’s surveillance regime and just how much of it they propose to abolish. The government is wrong, but so are those most vocal in their criticism of it. Not a particularly well argued claim on Traub’s part, but not necessarily a preposterous one either.
But what Conor is trying to take issue with, at least as I read him, is the begrudging willingness of many who hold a position similar to Traub’s to admit that something is rotten in the state of Denmark even while they refuse to credit Snowden for allowing these abuses to come to light, making it possible for the rest of us to debate them publicly.
Per Conor, “Privacy moderates are obsessed with policing the objections for hyperbole.” As has been the practice in almost every genre of policy debate, the very serious people value the art of being measured above all else. As a result, they spend as much time if not more chiding those with whom they are otherwise in general agreement for being too extreme and unruly.
Yes, we need more stimulus spending, but do stop calling this the death of the middle class! No, we don’t have complete proof that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and is allied with Al-Qaeda, but seriously now look at all those fools waving around Hitler-mustached pictures of G. W. Bush! Yes, the government is doing some bad stuff in secret and lying to us about it, but would the rest of you idiots stop freaking out and self-righteously praising Snowden! He’s a high school drop out after all who couldn’t even properly find asylum from the government who wants to unduly prosecute him–the very opposite of a very measured, very serious person!
Reading the same post, Zack Beauchamp claimed the following,
Now this I readily grant. But the post in question looks at two things, even though the transition between them is admittedly clumsy (if it exists at all).
First, Conor is arguing that there is an irrational desire on the part of some to police the hyperbole of those who criticize the government when it comes to surveillance, privacy, and civil liberties in general. Second, he’s arguing that on the basis of this, that, and the other, it’s dumb to think that, to the extent the government has committed abuses, these abuses can be amended or prevented in the future by moderately seeking redress for them. While Conor deals mostly with the latter, I want to address the former in more detail.
The amount of evidence pointing out this cognitive dissonance really is staggering.
- In a debate with Chris Hedges, Geoffrey Stone admits that he finds some of the things the government was revealed to be doing troubling and in need of reform and further scrutiny, but is also unconvinced that Snowden’s actions were part of a conscientious objection to an unjust law rather than the criminal acts of a rogue “techie.”
- Jenna Karvunidis thinks what Snoweden did was valuable but doesn’t understand how he can be a “hero” for leaking documents he was paid to protect and then fleeing to rogue states like China.
- John Aravosis was seemingly cool with Snowden leaking about Verizon handing over metadata to the NSA, but now thinks he’s a menace after leaking documents about how the U.S. and its allies spy on other countries’ heads of state and citizens.
- According to several members of Congress, Snowden did the country a favor but shouldn’t be praised for having done so.
- Jonathan Capehart gives Snowden credit for helping the public to have a “conversation” about how the government spies on it, but is concerned about saying anything nicer than that.
- Michael Moynihan believes the information Snowden leaked raises “ethical and moral issues that demand further public debate,” though he cautions anyone about praising Snowden’s actions before more information becomes available.
- Sen. Mike Lee co-introduced legislation to “declassify significant portions of secret court rulings that authorized both programs” because where “sensitive decisions” regarding citizen’s civil liberties are concerned, “we should demand no less.” He also thinks what Snowden did was problematic though, and that the young man is delusional.
- Jay Carney notes that it’s important to have a (presumably informed) debate about the surveillance state only made possible by Snowden’s actions, but also that what Snowden did was a serious problem.
- Per Jeffrey Toobin, hopes that some good comes of the leaks, but either way Snowden is a monster.
- Bob Schieffer thinks that we need to find out what exactly the government is up to, but also that Snowden’s actions were wrong and potentially (he seems to imply) threaten another 9/11-style attack.
- Josh Marshall is glad Snowden triggered a debate, even if he goes on to condemn him for betraying his country and fellow citizens.
- Thomas Friedman is glad to “live in a country with people who are vigilant in defending civil liberties,” and listening “to the debate about the disclosure of two government programs designed to track suspected phone and e-mail contacts of terrorists,” and worried “about potential government abuse of privacy,” but doesn’t think Snowden should be applauded for his whistle-blowing because he thinks the trade-offs are worth it–the ones he is now able to judge for himself due to Snowden’s whistle-blowing.
- Then there’s the MSNBC crowd, that great liberal bastion of free thinking and principled discourse. Richard Wolffe thinks the country needs to have a substantive debate about NSA surveillance, but also that Snowden is to blame for any lack of one. Ed Schultz wants to find the right balance that preserves privacy, but also thinks Snowden is a “punk.” Melissa Harris-Perry thinks the questions necessarily raised by Snowden’s leaks are important, and worthy of discussing on her show, but also extremely blameworthy (hat/tip Jeff Cohen).
Dig deeper into the Google search results and you’ll find plenty more examples. They more or less all boil down to: “We want to have this debate. We NEED to have this debate. Given this information I can now make a more informed judgement about what my government is doing and whether I approve and/or think it’s the best course of action. Also, the guy who made that happen is possibly dishonest, probably a traitor, most definitely a coward, and made the world a worse place by doing so.
Beauchamp made a further claim that I want to just note in passing,
This is important because it’s related to the incoherence mentioned at the beginning of Conor’s post. It’s one think to argue, as Traub mostly does, that the problem with the NSA et al is one not of kind, but of degree. It’s another to argue that X is bad, but how we found out about X is worse, and so a world in which we never found out about X would be better even though X would persist. It might seem like this is a tenable position on the surface, but because its validity necessarily depends on knowing what X is in order to judge which is worse, I don’t see how it can be.
What if X had been much worse–say a secret prison, one much like Guantanamo except the public wasn’t aware of it. Someone working for a contractor employed to do cyber security for the facility decides to leak its existence and the identity of those imprisoned there. Some say the facility, legal or not, represents a gross overreach on the part of the government, while others maintain that, while they think it needs to be shut down, it’s not like the government’s murdering people and besides, the potential threat to national security from leaks of this sort far outweighs whatever abuses can now be corrected–a determination they can only make because of the leak.
This is the case for transparency.
As Josh Marshall explained early on,
“And the public definitely has an interest in knowing just how we’re using surveillance technology and how we’re balancing risks versus privacy. The best critique of my whole position that I can think of is that I think debating the way we balance privacy and security is a good thing and I’m saying I’m against what is arguably the best way to trigger one of those debates.”