Snowden, the NSA, Heroism and China

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.

Update: My former nemesis Charles Johnson is doing a remarkable job chronicling this story and revealing how shaky Snowden’s foundation is. Just keep scrolling.


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.

The Discussion: 171 Comments


This is truly delicious. Julian Assange, Outstanding Global Citizen of the Decade, contributes legal advice and advisers plus some cash money.

Beijing wisely folds its hand rather than calling out the US.

Moscow. Not there is a pretty seedy stopover, and be sure Snowden’s advisers will be doing their best keeping the light-fingered locals at bay.

Cuba. Pineapple daiquiris with Raul and hopefully Snowden will dump a tranche of documents which will challenge the slimy rebuttals being peddled by the Australian and British govts.

Ecuador. Not a great life long haven. Really crap food. Lots of violence. Lousy local music scene, but it does have beach access.

He should have stuck with Iceland. Okay new age music. Lots of weekend binge drinking, attractive local women and everybody believes in pixies and dwarves.

A couple of things are missing in this media/chatterati circus.

1. A sound track, something like the Sex Pistols, but with a contemporary sound.

2. A bit of hacking support for Snowden by Lulzsec.

The only historical parallel I can think of is when the Weather Underground broke Timothy Leary out of the big house and transported him to Algeria.

The laughing stock here: Feinstein, Mueller and the rest of the political whores and bureaucratic hacks with their dire threats and chest thumping.

June 24, 2013 @ 6:46 am | Comment

My earlier speculation that Snowden took the job with Booz Allen and the NSA for the express purpose of stealing and distributing secret information was confirmed yesterday by none other than Snowden. See

June 25, 2013 @ 10:04 am | Comment

A law professor’s blog. Even my cat is smirking.
Are you serious?
Just look at the (pathetic) spin emanating out of the US media at present and die laughing.
Doug. The cure for all hyper-ventilated school boys: a very cold shower.
Okay, Snowden is a pretty crummy role model, but he definitely has got the US industrial-military complex by the short and curlies.
Why. I don’t know, since nothing he has revealed is a news flash.

June 25, 2013 @ 1:27 pm | Comment

King, baby, I linked to because I don’t have a password to the South China Morning Post and couldn’t link to the original article there. But you can find the SCPM link from the story if you are interested in the facts.

In any event, as you apparently concede, my speculation from a couple of weeks ago – that Snowden planned this from the get-go – has now been proven true.

The only question remaining is whether Snowden is being paid by a foreign power or is just the narcissistic asshole he appears to be.

I don’t have a firm view yet on whether the NSA surveillance program is good or not. I remain deeply worried that even if it is only being used today to ferret out information about Jihadists, which is unequivocally a good thing, it is subject to abuse, as the IRS scandal well demonstrates. My views about the NSA program are wholly separate from my views about Snowden. I hope he ends up rotting in a US cell somewhere.

June 25, 2013 @ 3:42 pm | Comment

@since nothing he has revealed is a news flash.

Violating the fourth amendment is not newsworthy?

June 25, 2013 @ 3:42 pm | Comment

@ doug. Links to links to even more links. Its getting pretty tenuous.

Paid by a foreign power. I suspect the Albanian Secret Service. You know, those swarthy types from the Balkans who nurse grudges for decades.

Really, who gives a rats about Snowden’s motives or personality.

He is *objectively* performing a global social service.

BTW. It is KT or the full honorific, okay.

I think you will find gainful employment when the HUAC reinvents itself, since you have bugger all interest in the letter or spirit of the US Constitution.

In fact, I think you are prime cannon fodder for the corporate fascist power structures which have noticeably hijacked the US in the last decade or so.

Rant on. The rest of the world is quietly sniggering.

And this doesn’t mean that smirking folk like myself don’t identify with a lot of the good things which come out of the US.

June 25, 2013 @ 5:01 pm | Comment

“the corporate fascist power structures which have noticeably hijacked the US in the last decade” – that sounds so alarming. Maybe I should be worried. How old are you? I’m 60+ and I can’t say that things seem very different now than they did 50 years ago. The US has drifted quite a bit to the left, at least culturally, and the big businesses that were so powerful 50 years ago are either no longer in existence or are mere fragments of their former selves (Kodak, Xerox, General Motors, US Steel, Pan American Airways, Lehman Brothers, Salomon Brothers, A&P, Crown Zellerbach, CBS, Honewell, RCA, etc.) and have been replaced by others (Microsoft, Dell, Google, Yahoo, Apple, Facebook, Verizon Wireless – although it’s far from clear that Microsoft, Dell or Yahoo are going to be powers for very much longer). In other words, the economy has continued to grow and churn and mix things up. How this translates into a corporate fascist power structure is not at all clear. I am reminded of the saying that the left is always complaining about the dark night of fascism falling on America, but somehow it always falls somewhere else.

June 25, 2013 @ 6:43 pm | Comment

I was referring to Halliburton, Brown and Root and the other corporations who hijacked US foreign policy during the Bush Neo Con years.

My use of the term fascist was ill advised and I withdraw it.

The problem with US intelligence agencies is that they not intelligently run nor do they produce much worthwhile intelligence, and that is despite their truly monumental budgets.
Read Tim Weimer’s Legacy of Ashes: the CIA couldn’t predict a sun set.

June 26, 2013 @ 12:15 am | Comment

“Unquestionably this will have negative impact on US-China relations’

— Whitehouse spokesperson Jay Carney.

I did not think that in my life time, I would see the day China gets protested by the US. Finally the US is doing a ‘we protest! You have hurt the feeling of the US people!’ on China.

I love it, absolutely love.

June 26, 2013 @ 9:53 am | Comment

“The problem with US intelligence agencies is that they not intelligently run nor do they produce much worthwhile intelligence” – dui, dui, dui

June 26, 2013 @ 12:43 pm | Comment

If dui means correct!

Definitely, considering the amount of tax dollars the average US citizen pays to the Inland Revenue each fortnight. And those figures are available, but I failed to save them.

I don’t know Doug. You could be using another tone and calling me something really disgusting.

June 26, 2013 @ 4:21 pm | Comment

I don’t know the proper pinyun, sorry, but dui, dui, dui seems to be what Shenzhen people use for “correctomundo.” BTW, you mean IRS, not Inland Revenue.

June 26, 2013 @ 5:03 pm | Comment

On the record, how previous whistleblowers fared and their advice to Snowden;

June 26, 2013 @ 11:54 pm | Comment

Doug. I definitely pick up on main point in# 157. re the churn of new winners and old losers. (I have been focusing on those corporations which congregate in a crony relationship around the defence establishment in this thread.)

Heard an interview without Ruchir Sharma author of Breakout Nations recently. It was not such the 8 or so nations he identified are future emergers, but some of his general conclusions.

You won’t find corporate creativity in countries such as China or Russia, for the simple reason that corporate success hinges of close govt relationships/cronyism. And here he pointed to the super rich lists in each of those countries and noted that the same individuals featured year in year out in non creative economies. And this in turn was related to the Gini coefficient.

When you have churn/snakes and ladders in the rich list, you also have creativity in the market place.

Sharma identified South Korea as THE successful economy today. From having to borrow overseas after the Asian meltdown in 1997, it had paid its debts off by 2,000. Furthermore, it now has the reserves required to incorporate NK should that regime collapse. This is an economy which has bugger all natural resources other than its workforce, and furthermore it doesn’t have the massive wealth divide unlike the crony states.

Lived in SK in 2000/1 and experienced his point in a couple of small ways, having been introduced to a couple of individuals whose pretty large companies went to the wall in 97. Not govt bailouts for these guys. They borrowed small sums and started again. Where: opened stalls in Seoul’s Dong Dae Mun Market.

I’ve probably missed a lot of Sharma’s nuances, but his main point is pretty convincing. I must also admit to having great admiration for Korean folk generally.

June 27, 2013 @ 7:14 am | Comment

@Clock #159

It is amazing that the US is stooping to the same level of emotional immaturity, isn’t it?

June 27, 2013 @ 2:38 pm | Comment

Snowden’s prospects of safe haven in a South American country just increased exponentially after the US diplomatic thuggery directed at Evo Morales. Esp, given this Ugly Gringo backdrop:

All this must be giving Fidel a quiet chortle as he lives out his final years on the porch in his rocking chair.

How to become an object of global derision in a few easy lessons.

You can only afford to piss off so many foreign govts, before the ingrates – in this case

July 4, 2013 @ 6:52 am | Comment

Mexico and all points south – find a convenient common unifier – anti-US nationalism.

July 4, 2013 @ 6:56 am | Comment

Apol. And all these leftish type Latin American govts are pretty darn flaky.

Oh, what a lifeline, thanks to the brainiacs running US govt outreach. Times have sort of moved on… the Oliver North, Secord, Negroponte mindset just doesn’t cut it media wise in 2013.

This type of shit undercuts all the good things – music, some cinema and general libertarian values/J S Mills liberty of the subject – which the United States should be offering the world.

When a mafia kleptomaniac like Putin can take the mickey out of you, you should understand that you have morally bankrupt govt colonised by bureaucratic whores. And incompetent ones at that.
Clapper, Robert Mueller and the rest of the gaggle who are pulling big salaries, beltway limos, private dining rooms while providing bugger all real Homeland security to the mug punter US tax payer.

More like Sucker Nation.

July 4, 2013 @ 6:25 pm | Comment

Snowden. Venezuela and Nicaragua. Told you so you fat/overweight Gringos.

Recall the Somoza family and the US financed Condor death squads during the Reagan years.

You now have about as much global credibility as Turkmenistan.


July 6, 2013 @ 4:54 pm | Comment

Snowden’s credibility grows with each new headline. Definitely now a candidate for a Nobel Peace prize.

Obama (who is probably totally clueless regarding the activities of his intelligence agencies), Boy Wonder Carney and whiskery James Clapper now enjoy CCTV levels of credibility.

Really, it is not a question of individuals and their credibility. Rather, it relates to the institutional nature and trajectory of a new form of state which is finally displacing democratic republicanism.

And Cameron is another weasel pushing GB towards this new model of surveillance governmentality.

All you folk who disparaged Assange. Sack cloth and ashes till you shuffle off this mortal coil.

October 25, 2013 @ 6:18 am | Comment

[…] this story, so I won’t give you a long list of links. However, I did want to point you to Richard Burger’s post on The Peking Duck, which I found to be blunt, fair, and devoid of bullshit. Of particular import is the discussion on […]

February 9, 2014 @ 3:11 am | Pingback

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