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A Complex Issue and a Simplistic Snowden

The Washington Post’s interview with Edward Snowden is bound to evoke complicated, on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other responses–a complexity that contrasts sharply with Snowden’s own simplistic, shallow conception of the issues at play. And it is this contrast that leaves those skeptical of massive government programs ultimately still in search of an advocate worthy of the cause of transparency, for Edward Snowden is not that advocate.

On the one hand, those seeking to defend the NSA’s domestic digital intelligence collection point out that, as Michael Mukasey notes today, the members of the president’s intel review board “have not uncovered any official efforts to suppress dissent or any intent to intrude into people’s private lives without legal justification.” On the other hand, critics of big government are on plenty firm ground when they say they should not be required to await abuse to argue, on principle, against secretive programs ripe for such abuse. The prevention of abuse of power, not simply the correction of abuse of power, is a legitimate goal for a self-governing people.

But is that Edward Snowden’s goal? The overwhelming evidence would suggest it is manifestly not. In fact, Snowden’s interview, for those who could sit through the messianic self-aggrandizing delusions, was most revealing in Snowden’s clear distaste for the very concept of democracy. An argument can be made that the system of checks and balances surrounding the NSA program is insufficiently skeptical toward the means because of governmental deference to the ends. But it remains the case that the American people have elected representatives, to whom Snowden did not first go with this information, despite there being obviously sympathetic members of Congress (Ron Wyden, Rand Paul, etc.).

Additionally, the intel collection has legal oversight and its constitutionality has been challenged and upheld. Again, this doesn’t mean the process is flawless–conservatives consider some laws to be unconstitutional despite the high court’s acquiescence. But compare that with Snowden’s response when his interviewer, Barton Gellman–one of the journalists through whom Snowden has been leaking his information–asks him about his sense of authority and entitlement:

“That whole question — who elected you? — inverts the model,” he said. “They elected me. The overseers.”

He named the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees.

“Dianne Feinstein elected me when she asked softball questions” in committee hearings, he said. “Mike Rogers elected me when he kept these programs hidden. . . . The FISA court elected me when they decided to legislate from the bench on things that were far beyond the mandate of what that court was ever intended to do. The system failed comprehensively, and each level of oversight, each level of responsibility that should have addressed this, abdicated their responsibility.”

“It wasn’t that they put it on me as an individual — that I’m uniquely qualified, an angel descending from the heavens — as that they put it on someone, somewhere,” he said. “You have the capability, and you realize every other [person] sitting around the table has the same capability but they don’t do it. So somebody has to be the first.”

There are two possible conclusions to be drawn from Snowden’s answer. Either he is a deeply unintelligent man with a tenuous grasp on reality, or he is a deeply dishonest man brimming with hostility toward Western democracy. That he accomplished what he did and now lives under the watchful gaze of the Russian security services suggests that the latter is far more likely. That’s not to say there isn’t also evidence for the former theory–witness his choice of historical analogy:

Snowden likened the NSA’s powers to those used by British authorities in Colonial America, when “general warrants” allowed for anyone to be searched. The FISA court, Snowden said, “is authorizing general warrants for the entire country’s metadata.”

“The last time that happened, we fought a war over it,” he said.

The comparison is historically illiterate and the conclusion asinine. Nonetheless, it fits with his pattern of dishonesty and self-promotion. He’s also a hypocrite: he claims to be for transparency, but has given his interview to a friendly and cooperative source, and even then he declines to answer certain questions about his own activity and the materials he possesses. He claims to be for the rule of law, but eschewed legal channels for his activity in favor of breaking the law and then evaded the legal consequences with the help of authoritarian, criminal regimes. He claims to want a discussion about domestic spying, but revealed damaging information about American spying abroad.

There is plenty, in other words, Edward Snowden is not telling us, and what he is telling us undermines his hollow attempts to claim the dignified posture of a whistleblower. There are troubling aspects to the NSA’s data collection, and an honest argument about transparency and security might keep that trouble at bay. But Snowden is not an honest messenger and he is not conducting an honest discussion. The American people, and the cause of transparency and limited government, deserve better than Edward Snowden.


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