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Snowden and the Transparency Trap

Following up on its publication of the NSA surveillance program, the Guardian introduced the world to its source, Edward Snowden, painting an expectedly sympathetic portrait of him as a public-minded “whistleblower” on June 9. The previous weekend, the Guardian introduced readers to the former girlfriend of Aaron Swartz, the open-Internet hacker and activist who committed suicide in January. Swartz was a “fierce proponent of the open access movement — which promotes free and easy access to the world’s knowledge online.”

The day after the Guardian introduced us to Snowden, it introduced us to his (former) girlfriend, Lindsay Mills. Combing through her public blog, the reporter told us that it contained “some hints in the blog that Mills shared Snowden’s passion for civil liberties issues. In one of the most intriguing updates, in October last year, Mills posted a picture of a woman – presumably her – wearing the V for Vendetta mask, symbolic of the Anonymous movement,” referring to the hacking collective.

One of these things is not like the others.

But which one stands apart depends much on how you interpret the actions and intentions of Snowden. The Guardian itself makes no distinctions among all these personalities, ludicrously associating a “passion for civil liberties issues” with cyber anarchists. It’s easy to tell the difference between Anonymous and Aaron Swartz, a gifted young activist who wanted to free up academic articles to the public. With whom, then, would we associate Snowden? The distinctions the Guardian refuses to draw cannot be so easily avoided by politicians, less even by American politicians, and still less by those with designs on the White House.

This makes Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s take on Snowden of great political interest–all the more so because of Paul’s libertarianism and the legacy of his father’s following, which attracted those who took their suspicion of big government to its aggressive, conspiracy-theory extremes. Paul is leading the charge against the NSA surveillance and its broader implications for the security state, even rallying a class-action suit against the NSA by telecom customers.

Yet the challenge for Paul is how he answers the following question: What is Edward Snowden? Some call him a traitor, others a hero, and to everyone else he’s somewhere in between. And so Paul must decide whether he can lead a movement without embracing–or even while condemning–its latest mascot. Apparently not. RealClearPolitics has the video of Paul’s remarks to CNN on Wednesday:

SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY): I do know that committing civil disobedience is a — is a big step forward and history has treated people in various fashions. Some people who commit civil disobedience have been treated heroes, some have not…. how will history treat the person who was trying to defend the Fourth Amendment?

I think that’s still open to be said. I think there do need to be rules, that being said, about people not revealing secrets. And I think the divulging of all kinds of secrets that endanger lives is wrong. But in this case, I think he was divulging a program that I think clearly, there are constitutional questions about and for which the director of Intelligence frankly lied to the U.S. Senate and said, we’re not collecting any data on any Americans, when, in fact, they’re doing a billion pieces of data every day.

Paul obviously does not go so far as to put Snowden on the pedestal that so many have. But a practitioner of “civil disobedience” and defender of the Fourth Amendment are among the more positive labels Snowden has been tagged with by American political leaders. And even if you don’t believe Snowden was a traitor to his country, neither can it be plausibly argued that Snowden–who subsequently revealed American intelligence operations against China while hiding out in Hong Kong–was merely acting in the name of transparency or civil libertarian instincts, as Max Boot explained the same afternoon that Paul was interviewed on CNN. The latest incident sparked concerns that Snowden would actually defect to China, as ABC reported yesterday:

In an interview Wednesday with Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, Snowden said his country “had been hacking into computers in Hong Kong and [in China] for years.”

Those remarks alarmed intelligence officials, who considered those statements as much of a betrayal as his alleged leaking of highly classified files on the NSA’s vast surveillance program to two newspapers last week, the senior official said.

Intelligence officials may consider it “as much of a betrayal” as the earlier leaks, but in seeking to understand Snowden and his motivations they are worlds apart. It has been argued that the vast nature of the data collection means its exposure does not present America’s enemies with specific enough information to enable them to bypass the NSA security apparatus. If you believe that, then it’s easy to also believe that Snowden is a defender of the Constitution and an advocate of government transparency.

But he is not. He is handing over American security secrets to help China–an authoritarian country ruled by a secretive elite that condemns its critics to gulags or worse. And now he is believed to be contemplating defecting to that country. A crusader on behalf of reining in government power and expanding individual rights and freedoms does not aid China.

As the case develops, attitudes toward Snowden are bound to change, because it is becoming increasingly clear that he is not the noble statesman of his ego-driven imagination. And as those opinions change, Paul’s will hopefully change with them. And if there is a lesson here for Paul, it is that the current generation of transparency “hacktivists” are not constitutionalists or patriots. To this WikiLeaks generation, liberal democracy is not the goal. Aspiring American presidents shouldn’t be fooled into thinking it is.