Everyone seems to have a post up today about whether Edward Snowden, the high-school dropout who became a contractor for the NSA and leaked a copious amount of secret data this week, is a saint or sinner. I say we still can’t say for sure, but, knowing it will cost me some friends, I lean toward the latter. But before I explain why I am suspicious and wary of Snowden, let me say that I’ve found the whole dust-up in the media the past few days to be somewhat head-scratching. I mean, how many of us really had no idea the NSA was chronicling our online and telecom data? That’s what they are there for, for better or worse — to accumulate vast amounts of data and comb through it. Do I like that? No, and it opens the door to abuse. But did America sign off on it and give it its blessing? Of course we did. It’s all permitted under the vile Patriot Act, it’s all legal. Watch movies like the 1998 Enemy of the State or the Jason Bourne series or read Ron Suskind’s books like The One Percent Solution and it’s all spelled out, it is no secret: the NSA knows everything you’re saying, emailing, surfing, etc. How can anyone actually be surprised? Americans went hysterical after 911 and accepted — no, celebrated — a new lack of privacy. I remember the polls that came out after Bush decided to circumvent the FISA court and allow authorities to listen in on any phone conversations. The overwhelming number of Americans were in favor of it. Bush said, “If someone’s calling Al Qaeda I want to know about it,” and the public lapped it up. We accepted it. Today’s NSA and all its power to watch over us is a product of our own making.
Let me make another point before I get to Snowden. One of the most appallingly irresponsible acts performed by the media as this story broke was the Washington Post’s reporting that the big Internet companies like Google and Facebook had agreed to give the NSA “direct access” to their servers, allowing them to pore over the personal data of millions of users. Only problem was that it was false — soon the WaPo backpedaled on the story and took back the line about “direct access.” You can read all about this bad journalism here — one of the best analysis of how the media screwed up this story. Snip:
Has our collective attention span become so ridiculously short that we’re suddenly shocked by news of the NSA attaining data about Americans as a means of fighting evildoers? Has everyone been asleep for the last 12 years?
To summarize, yes, the NSA routinely requests information from the tech giants. But the NSA doesn’t have “direct access” to servers nor is it randomly collecting information about you personally. Yet rending of garments and general apoplexy has ruled the day, complete with predictable invective about the president being “worse than Bush” and that anyone who reported on the new information debunking the initial report was and is an Obamabot apologist.
Speaking for myself on that front, I’m not apologizing for anyone. I’m merely noting that Greenwald and the Washington Post reported inaccurate information.
The Daily Beast adds:
But even in the past few days, some aspects of the program originally reported as terrifying and incontrovertible fact have changed. For instance, the Post claimed that the NSA was “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies” with the express consent of the companies involved. The Guardian made similar claims. But as one intelligence source told CNET, the program is “not as described in the histrionics in the Washington Post or the Guardian. None of it’s true. It’s a very formalized legal process that companies are obliged to do.” The Post updated its story, no longer claiming that major tech companies such as Google and Facebook provided the NSA with direct access to their servers. As tech journalist Ed Bott wrote, “Almost no one who reacted to the story initially did so with any skepticism about the Post’s sources or its conclusions.”
This was one of the worst rushes to judgment I’d ever seen. The rush to canonize Snowden by the likes of Ron Paul, Glenn Beck and, of course, Glenn Greenwald and others on both the left and right seems to me altogether misguided. I urge you all to see Jeffrey Toobin’s piece in The New Yorker, maybe the most sensible piece I’ve seen on Snowden yet.
[S]ome, including my colleague John Cassidy, are hailing him as a hero and a whistle-blower. He is neither. He is, rather, a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison….And what of his decision to leak the documents? Doing so was, as he more or less acknowledges, a crime. Any government employee or contractor is warned repeatedly that the unauthorized disclosure of classified information is a crime. But Snowden, apparently, was answering to a higher calling. “When you see everything you realize that some of these things are abusive,” he said. “The awareness of wrongdoing builds up. There was not one morning when I woke up. It was a natural process.” These were legally authorized programs; in the case of Verizon Business’s phone records, Snowden certainly knew this, because he leaked the very court order that approved the continuation of the project. So he wasn’t blowing the whistle on anything illegal; he was exposing something that failed to meet his own standards of propriety. The question, of course, is whether the government can function when all of its employees (and contractors) can take it upon themselves to sabotage the programs they don’t like. That’s what Snowden has done.
So, finally, how is this all being received over in China? I predicted in an earlier thread that the story would have little to no resonance there, and so far that seems to be the case. From the Atlantic:
And if you head over to Xinhua, a state-run paper, you’ll notice that there’s no mention of Snowden in the top 10 stories on the site’s front page. There’s not even really a Xinhua report to be had on Snowden — there’s something on the NSA as a “spy agency” categorized as a video report. In that category, which isn’t advertised on Xinhua’s front page, it’s at least the top story (pictured at right). Whether that’s a conscious news/propaganda decision to order to avoid sparking a conversation that might come back to China — well, it’s hard to tell, and it’s still a bit early in the news cycle. But remember this is the United States and digital intelligence and, the Chinese government has accused the U.S. of hacking its sites, and this Snowden thing is the biggest hacking leak story in U.S. history, apparently, so you’d think China’s papers wouldn’t shy away from the opportunity to make this a bigger deal.
The hand-wringing will continue and self-righteous blowhards like Greenwald (who I used to love and used to link to until he became so cloyingly moralistic) will continue to leak out more bad stories about the NSA — he’s already promised, “More to come!” — and Snowden will continue to be consecrated by the likes of Michael Moore and Ron Paul, but I say let’s take a step back and look at what he’s really all about, and whether this was an act of selfless defiance of an evil authority or an act of narcissism, and a criminal one at that. I mean, as much as I may sympathize with the message that the NSA has too much power and control, we remain a nation of laws, and should every contractor who has agreed to keep the data they deal with confidential split his gut and reveal the nation’s secrets? I’m a big supporter of Daniel Ellsberg and believed what he did was a pure act of conscience, and whose revelations — and this is important — caused no harm to anyone but instead awakened the nation to the bright shining lie that was Vietnam. I don’t put Snowden in that category. He is relishing the publicity, and has done no one any service except those who want to see America in turmoil.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.