Commentary Magazine


Edward Snowden’s Parallel Universe

Edward Snowden, the NSA turncoat, sounds coherent and measured at first blush, but the more he keeps talking the more he emerges as a paranoid narcissist with a messiah complex. He believes that there is a vast, overarching conspiracy within the U.S. government to abrogate the liberties of ordinary citizens, and he is the only person who has the courage and the idealism to expose this monstrous misdoing. 

Of the stated goals for NSA’s programs—to keep us safe from external threats—he has not a word to say. Perhaps he thinks such threats do not exist or do not need to be countered. Nor does he offer a single instance of actual abuse by the NSA: say, a colleague using all of this high-tech equipment to spy on his ex-wife or to blackmail some anti-government activist. Instead he assumes that because surveillance capabilities exist, they will be misused—and therefore they should not exist at all. One might as well disarm the police because we know that occasionally a cop will commit misconduct.

His worldview is of the classic paranoid variety. One wonders if he has seen too many Jason Bourne movies or other classics of the genre such as Enemy of the State and The Parallax View, all of which are premised on the notion of the U.S. government as an infinitely malevolent and infinitely powerful surveillance state that can watch anyone anywhere and that will kill without qualm to cover its own tracks.

In fact Snowden told the Washington Post that the U.S. intelligence community “will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure and make them the sole owner of this information.” In the real world, of course, the U.S. intelligence community kills terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen–not leakers or even spies, whether in Hawaii or Hong Kong. There is no real-world counterpart to Jason Bourne.

Snowden also told the Post: “I believe that at this point in history, the greatest danger to our freedom and way of life comes from the reasonable fear of omniscient State powers kept in check by nothing more than policy documents.” In the real world, of course, the greatest threat to “our freedom and way of life” comes not from an “omniscient” American government but from jihadist groups like al-Qaeda; rogue states like North Korea and Iran; and of course from our emerging great power rival, China, where Snowden has sought refuge, at least temporarily.

China not only limits its own people’s access to basic information on the Internet but it is constantly attacking American computer networks, stealing our intellectual property and our national security secrets. The NSA is our best line of defense against these actual threats to our privacy and liberty. 

That’s the real world. But Snowden seems to inhabit some parallel universe where he is in rebellion against a 1984-like state that bears no relation to the actual U.S. government as it exists today (or has ever existed). He is entitled to his fantasies, but he is not entitled to act on them to the detriment of our national security by telling our enemies what they should not know about our covert collection capabilities.

What is truly disturbing is that so many seek to justify his actions as if he were a dissident behind the Iron Curtain rather than a well-paid employee of a democratic government that provides multiple avenues to redress actual abuses—from the NSA inspector general’s office to the House and Senate intelligence committees. He availed himself of none of these channels. But then he has no actual abuses to cite. He has a policy disagreement with the determination made by two administrations—one Republican, one Democratic—to collect information on telephone calls and Internet traffic, a decision ratified by Congress and overseen by the judiciary. 

Snowden, a high school dropout with limited knowledge and experience beyond the world of computing, prefers to substitute his own judgment about what the United States government should be doing for the considered judgment of our elected leaders and national-security professionals. He claims to be defending democracy but actually he is subverting it. What makes our system of government work is that decisions are taken collectively and even those who disagree carry out directives unless they are illegal or unethical—which is not the case, based on the evidence so far presented, with the programs Snowden has ill-advisedly revealed. Alas, his narcissism will only be fed by all of the news coverage—some of it decidedly adulatory—he has generated.

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