Hero: no contest. That's what I think of Edward Snowden joined by 31% of respondents to a Reuters/Ipsos poll compared with the 23% who consider him a traitor. The poll used "patriot", but as you will see, I prefer hero. Interestingly, Snowden himself says, "I'm neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American".
There are moments when someone has to step forward with the courage to question what our government is doing — doing in our name. Barack Obama wouldn't be in the White House were it not for courageous women and men who challenged the accepted way of doing things and that included established government policy. Perhaps those responsible for our nation's security don't see, or have lost sight of, the disconnect between their approach to protecting us and the values they are charged to protect. This is not to suggest that they mean to undermine our democracy or that they are dishonorable. Rather I see them as captives of the "war on terror" mentality put in place by our collective over reaction, especially after 9/11. In my last post I suggested that, as a result, Osama lives. The light that Edward Snowden has shown on how we are being monitored suggests not only that he lives but also that in some measure he lives victorious. We can't be happy about it.
The same Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 46% (the largest grouping) didn't know if Snowden is a traitor or patriot. My guess is that some, likely many, among them were unaware of who he is or what he has admitted to having done. It's just another example of our limited national attention span and perhaps more limited, sometimes non-existent, interest span. If you want to know how deep this apparent lack of interest is just consider a the Huffington Post, that "only 47 US Senators bothered to attend a closed-door briefing on the National Security Agency's surveillance programs" held in the aftermath of the disclosures. Are we to assume that they didn't want to know, or perhaps didn't want to take responsibility? You make that call.
According to a Times story, Snowden has some questions of his own. “Society really seems to have developed an unquestioning obedience towards spooky types", he wrote. "Did we get to where we are today via a slippery slope that was entirely within our control to stop, or was it a relatively instantaneous sea change that sneaked in undetected because of pervasive government secrecy?” Snowden isn't necessarily a hero because he leaked information about the NSA's surveillance activities but because of the questions he asks and how his actions may have forced us to ask them as well. Snowden did exactly what whistle blowers are supposed to do. He has forced us to think about and hopefully to engage in a conversation about the "sea change" that we have all known to be in place and have de-facto accepted. President Obama told Charlie Rose that he welcomes such a discussion. Whether one will really take place, and more importantly if it will be substantive, is yet to be seen. I have my doubts.
The more likely scenario is that the Snowden story will be played for all its political and media worth and then will slip away in the face of the next "compelling" story. Do many Americans even remember — if they ever knew — what was contained Bradley Manning's information dump on Wikileaks? Bradley who? Right. Manning is currently being tried by the military and may well spend much of his life in prison, in part I'd think because his disclosures were literally a dump of documents rather than Snowden's seemingly more carefully self-vetted disclosures. Also the Wikileaks were as much about who said what, when and to whom as putting the light on policies that directly impacted on us all.
Snowden's material was classified, but any careful reading of legislation that can be found on the Internet coupled with a sense of what technology can do puts it into the category of "nothing new". As Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker put it, "These were scoops of a high order. Yet they were more in the nature of confirmations than of revelations." Moreover, there are serious questions about whether these materials, specifically the existence of these programs, merit being "classified". Indeed, the President has ordered a review of what should and should not be given that designation. It is also fair to ask how secure our classified information is when 1.4 Million individuals have the same top security clearance given to Edward Snowden. That's really playing things close to the vest, isn't it?
One of the most vexing questions raised by the Snowden disclosure surrounds President Obama's continuation in whole or in part of programs that have their origin in the Bush-Cheney years. Eagar to weigh in on the situation, Cheney flew to New York from Montana to tell Fox News that Snowden is a criminal and a traitor. He also said Obama has no credibility in part because of Benghazi. Wasn't this one of the duo that ignored intelligence that predicted 9/11 and who later spread unsubstantiated information portrayed as absolute fact in the run up to Iraq? Cheney also suggested that Snowden might be a Chinese spy. That too is unsubstantiated if not absurd but hey, strengthened by a new heart, the man remains true to himself. Obama in his Rose interview said he would not comment on (or obviously characterize) Snowden who is the subject of a Justice Department investigation. There is a difference between these two men.
I join with many others in being deeply disappointed by Obama's continuing these and other programs and in his inability thus far to close Guantanamo. He has made a vigorous defense of the surveillance program and stressed its limitations and compliance with both the law and its intent. Hopefully those statements will be fully vetted and the implications of the program seriously discussed. Hopefully, because as already indicated, I'm not holding my breath. Without letting Obama off the hook, I do think that we should consider what put him in this situation, why he hasn't closed down these programs.
It takes considerable time to build a house or an office tower. It takes, sometimes only seconds, to destroy one. Consider flattening of neighborhood by the 2013 Oklahoma tornado or the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001. Not so with government programs. Yes it may take some time to put the legislation in place (less so to sign executive orders) but once enacted these programs are, if not indestructible, certainly very hard to set aside. The good news is that for all the talk about the Affordable Care Act, undoing it will be very difficult if not impossible. This resistance to overturn what is in place explains a lot about Obama's continuing the surveillance program. And he is not the first president to carry forward what a predecessor left behind and what one would have though he might abandon. This resistance to change is built into government and to some degree gives us the very continuity that we all want, that we demand. In fact, we can't function without it.
Every morning presidents are given a national security briefing, prepared of course by the security community. It's filled, one must assume, with a lot of scary stuff, the things that are going or could go wrong. Consider if you were exposed to that every day and know that your decisions have a direct impact on the country's safety. Consider the implied risks. Eisenhower was concerned about the Military-Industrial Complex, which incidentally is still very much in place, thank you, more than 50 years on. Today we have the Security-Contractor Complex. Snowden worked for a contractor not for the government and many of those 1.2 million with clearance work for private companies who have an economic stake in keeping these programs in place, just as do aerospace companies who want us to maintain our air fleet. I don't have to paint that picture for you.
Democratic presidents, most especially those who are assumed to lean ideologically left, carry a special credibility burden. The Right has been successful in painting them as weak on defense and national security for decades. It took a Nixon to open relations with China; Johnson could never have pulled that off. Obama is caught in circumstances he didn't create. Again, it doesn't mean we should give him a pass, but he does deserve our acknowledgment of his reality. Let's also not forget that we play a role here, that we get the government we put in place or allow to be put in place (too many of us don't vote).
As to our hero, Edward Snowden, we still know very little about him. In the first days some press reports stressed that he was a high school dropout both to diminish him and to raise questions about how he could have gotten so far. That's ironic coming from the same people who just weeks ago reported than another even younger high school drop out David Karp had sold the company he founded to Yahoo for $1.2 Billion. Many of the creators of todays leading tech companies are dropouts. What should get our attention is not that he is a dropout but that Snowden, like Manning, is young. You may equate that with being immature, but I think it more accurately reflects a new generation that, with more information at their disposal, sees the disconnect between the simplistic picture often painted of our democracy, the flag waving, and reality. They see it, and for all of our benefit, they aren't going to take it any more. That makes Snowden a hero, whatever the disposition of a case that is likely to be brought against him will be. We owe him our thanks.