One of the things I find most fascinating about whistleblower Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations is the way so many Americans reflexively defend the very government that has been caught illegally, unconstitutionally spying on them. Doubtless, some of the defensiveness is produced more by partisan identification with Obama than by identification with the government generally (can you imagine how much differently the Democratic leadership and rank and file would be reacting had Snowden blown the whistle under a Republican president?). But I also sense that a good deal of the defensiveness comes from a reflexive identification with the government generally. As Digby has repeatedly observed, many Americans would rather be subjects than citizens.
What’s so revealing about the hostile reactions to Snowden’s revelations is the way many people try to articulate a principle to justify their hostility, but then immediately selectively apply it. For example, has even one of the people crying out some version of “Snowden broke the law, he should be punished!” ever made the same argument about Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for lying to Congress? How can people be concerned about the consequences to our safety and freedom of a contractor leaking secrets about a massive domestic spying operation, but sanguine about the head of America’s entire intelligence apparatus perjuring himself in denying such a program exists?
Let’s talk about Clapper for a moment. The fact that Congress is so in thrall to the intelligence industrial complex that it can’t muster the balls even to *complain* about being lied to by an intelligence bureaucrat tells us a lot about the current fragile state of our democracy. And in the face of this, many Americans are more upset that someone has revealed the NSA is spying on them than they are about the spying. That’s not good.
And it gets worse. Have you read about Obama’s Insider Threat Program? The Most Transparent Administration Ever has figured out that the best way to foster greater transparency is to “Hammer this fact home… leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States;” to get co workers to inform on each other; and to gin up suspicion of anyone who’s going through a divorce, facing financial problems, or even just under stress. It sounds like a pretty good idea… in fact, wait, I think it’s been tried before!
And worse still. The Obama Justice Department has now charged Snowden with espionage. However you want to characterize what Snowden did — whistleblowing, leaking, whatever — what he did was selectively provide secret information to the press (The Guardian and The Washington Post). He had much more information he could have turned over but didn’t because he thought the harm of releasing that additional information would outweigh the good. And he asked the Guardian and the Post to also take care to edit<>the information he provided so as to minimize any potential harm. What he did *not* do was secretly sell the information to which he had access to a foreign government. He could have made millions had he chosen to do so. Instead, he provided the information openly to the American people. You can call his actions various different things, but you can’t coherently call them “espionage.” Not unless you’re Humpty Dumpty, and words mean whatever you want them to mean.
On the other hand, we do call it the “Justice” Department – a name that becomes more akin to Ministry of Love by the day. So maybe the government *can* just make words mean whatever it wants them to mean. Obama claims to be running The Most Transparent Administration Ever, after all, even as he prosecutes his eighth whistleblower for espionage – compared to a grand total of three people charged under the Espionage Act under all previous administrations combined (including those of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, naturally).
Look, so far as I know, no one is claiming Snowden didn’t violate a contractual and legal obligation to preserve secrecy (though the rhetoric about his violating some secrecy “oath” is propagandistic bullshit suggestive of a weirdly authoritarian mentality). But what kind of person — what kind of citizen — thinks Snowden’s NDA violation is more important, more consequential, more deserving of discussion and debate than the fact that the government has constructed a massive, unaccountable, domestic spying operation totally in secret? Or that the head of America’s intelligence apparatus was just caught lying to Congress about the existence of this program? Which is the greater potential threat to democracy — one guy leaking secrets to the press (given the self-glorifying ongoing flood of such leaks coming from the Obama administration, you better hope that’s the wrong answer)? Or a massive intelligence organization spying on the American people, and the head of that organization lying to Congress about it?
The answer is obvious. And if in spite of that obvious answer, you find yourself more exercised about Snowden than about the NSA and Clapper, I respectfully submit that you have a bit of soul-searching to do.
Fortunately, the establishment media has all the right priorities. Here’s courageous truth-seeker David Gregory of Meet the Press, suggesting that The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, who along with The Washington Post’s Bart Gellman broke the NSA story, should be prosecuted for aiding and abetting the enemy. If you can find a more docile, subservient, bootlicking, Stockholm Syndrome level of pseudo-journalistic cravenness than Gregory’s, please let me know.
And for the “I don’t care of anyone is reading my mail or listening to my calls or compiling my metadata, I have nothing to hide” people out there, I want you to consider this:
The patterns the NSA is searching for as it scours domestic communications aren’t patterns exclusive to terrorism. They are patterns of clandestine behavior (in particular, we now know the NSA is heavily focussed on encrypted email). Some such clandestine behavior might involve terrorism. Some will involve other types of crime. A lot of it will involve communications between, say, lawyers and clients. And most of it, probably nearly all, will involve things that are embarrassing or illicit, such as closeted homosexuality, sexual affairs, and other personal matters people would prefer to keep private.
I wonder what a massive intelligence organization might do with information it uncovered about embarrassing or illegal activities on the part of politicians, journalists, and other powerful and influential people. It’s enough to make you wonder why Congress is acting so blasé about Clapper’s bald faced lie.
Nah, that’s crazy talk. It could never happen here.
But just in case it could happen here… just in case an operation like PRISM, even if you don’t think it’s being misused today, might provide a turnkey program for totalitarian control tomorrow… isn’t it important that we as citizens have the opportunity and means to discuss it openly and intelligently? And can you come up with some other realistic opportunity and means beyond the actions of Edward Snowden and the rare people like him?
Put all these things together. The president is prosecuting all non-Obama-glorifying leaks as espionage. Congress is so captured and craven it shrugs when intelligence bureaucrats lie to it under oath about the scope of domestic spying operations. The establishment media so identifies with the government that it wants journalists prosecuted for doing core First Amendment journalism.
Oh, and the NSA is spying on us, and what’s been revealed of that spying so far is probably just a fraction of the reality.
If you find any of this, let alone all, acceptable, you have more faith in the inherent resiliency of American democracy than I do. But if Congress is craven, and the establishment media is complicit, and even average citizens are eager to let the government do whatever it wants as long as it claims It’s For Your Own Safety and/or as long as someone from the citizen’s favored wing of the war party occupies the Oval Office, who is left to guard the guardians?
Or maybe we can just let the NSA guard itself. They’re the government, after all. I’m sure they mean well.