Pictured: An actual, not-a-joke, publicized-on-twitter, mission badge from a spy satellite program to empower U.S. Government data collection programs.
Earlier this year, I took part in a public debate in front of a few hundred people in Dublin, Ireland over the resolution, "This house believes that Edward Snowden is no hero."
My team lost. Badly.
Against my wishes, I was on the side arguing against Mr. Snowden, meaning that I had to make as strong a case as possible for the side that I did not believe in (such is the nature of formal debating). In order to write my speech, I racked my brain for the arguments that I have heard people make against me as I have hailed the Snowden-enabled revelations about surveillance state overreach since they came out in June.
The points I came up with sound alarmingly similarly to this Slate article called Why Edward Snowden Won't (And Shouldn't) Get Clemency, which reads like an encyclopedic account of the bad arguments and personal prejudices that have all too often guided the public discourse about the surveillance revelations.
Fred Kaplan, the author of the piece, wrote it in response to a major article from January 1st by the New York Times Editorial Board arguing that Edward Snowden is a whistle-blower, not a leaker, and should therefore be granted clemency or even amnesty by the U.S. government. Quoth the Times piece: "When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government."
It turns out that all of the different bad arguments against Edward Snowden (and I don't think there are any noteworthy good ones) are actually the same fallacious point.
It's worth noting here that the best reason that anyone could have for really having it out for Edward Snowden, for wishing him ill, is that his leaks have weakened the U.S. government's ability to prevent terrorist attacks on civilians.
But, it really must be remembered, the NSA and related agencies have not been able to come up with a shred of evidence that any of their unconventional methods (the dragnet surveillance and the overreaching snooping which have been approved largely by secret court decisions since 9/11, or which haven't been legally approved at all) have been of any use at stopping terrorist attacks.
Indeed, morality and legality aside, how can an agency which pays hundreds of employees to play World of Warcraft and Second Life because terrorists could, in principle, communicate through them, possibly correctly determine the very small chance that some particular communication is terrorist plotting?
The simple answer is that they could not. Dragnet spying isn't just wrong, it's the wrong way to save lives. It's an open question whether paring down the bulkiness of the surveillance apparatus might actually improve the efficacy of agencies at finding and stopping what is, ultimately, a very rare thing.
Because the Times editorial has resparked the conversation about this story, now is a timely moment to rehash the major points at issue. I'll use Kaplan's Slate piece as a guide, since it is so comprehensively riddled with bad argumentation and fact-twisting. I'll be going through it point by point to explain why there is no reason not to support Edward Snowden in his personal and ideological struggles.
(I must confess that, before this article, I rather respected Kaplan's work. He is an accomplished journalist and foreign policy thinker and a damned good writer. I don't think he is Bad or Stupid, just that he is emblematic of the sort of older, typically male, hawkish, international relations insider or wannabe-insider who have turned out to be the most vociferous and wrong-headed critics of Snowden. The author aside, the piece I am arguing against here is, anyway, almost jarringly intellectually dishonest.)
1) In a minor feat, Kaplan first manages to offend in the caption of the photo that leads the article, a picture of Edward Snowden at a press conference (that is, assuming it was he and not an editor who wrote the caption). The caption reads, "A frame grab made from AFPTV footage, reportedly taken on Oct. 9, 2013, shows Edward Snowden speaking with retired U.S. intelligence workers and activists in an unidentified location. He may well end up in an unidentified location for a very long time."
It's a pretty awful caption. Whoever wrote it definitely relishes the idea of his rotting away in a secret prison. The real problem here is a failure of imagination, a failure of empathy, that most imaginative mental act.
2) Kaplan's first major factual critique of Snowden comes soon after. His point here, and his main point in the article, seems to be this: "if [Snowden's] stolen [Sic] trove of beyond-top-secret documents had dealt only with the NSA’s domestic surveillance, then some form of leniency might be worth discussing."
First of all, if Snowden "stole" the data from the NSA, what does Mr. Kaplan suggest we call the methods by which the NSA gathered that data in the first place?
But, Kaplan goes on, Snowden also leaked documents that relate to non-domestic issues. This is especially damning because, as we all know, "All men are created equal" really means "All men with blue passports that say 'United States of America' on them are created equal". Need I clarify that the previous sentence was sarcastic?
Kaplan here presents a damning list: "...Snowden did much more than that. The documents that he gave the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman and the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald have, so far, furnished stories about the NSA’s interception of email traffic, mobile phone calls, and radio transmissions of Taliban fighters in Pakistan’s northwest territories; about an operation to gauge the loyalties of CIA recruits in Pakistan; about NSA email intercepts to assist intelligence assessments of what’s going on inside Iran; about NSA surveillance of cellphone calls “worldwide,” an effort that (in the Post’s words) “allows it to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect.”
If it were shocking that American intelligence tries to intercept radio transmissions and emails from enemy forces in an active (if undeclared) military zone like Northwest Pakistan, this would be damning. Indeed, if any of these disclosures that Kaplan lists were vital operations that were likely to be unexpected by the enemy, Kaplan's point would be a strong one. But, that is not what is happening. There's another story.
Kaplan is being deeply disingenuous here. If you actually follow any of the links that Kaplan provides like citations for the list of ills brought on by Snowden's disclosures, you will see that they do not actually describe the things that the hyperlinks say they do, at least not without considerable stretching. The first link, for example, describes revelations about secret and highly contentious drone activities in Pakistan. But if you read the article itself, the only information that Snowden's documents actually add is that the NSA also, not just the CIA and military, is involved in this. Useful information for the Taliban this is not.
In the second link, to give another example, the article details the "Black Budget" of the intelligence communities, which happens to reveal that (gasp!) the CIA routinely checks its recruits for loyalty, especially in the Middle East. Far from being a Snowden revelation, the CIA's practice of using polygraphs and other measures to check the loyalty of employees and operators is public knowledge. I even have a family member who works at high level in the CIA who is allowed to openly acknowledge that practices like this go on (the content of what it is he is supposed to be loyal to is, of course, not open for discussion).
With each of the links, Kaplan performs a similar act of subterfuge, relying on the likelihood that his readers will not click through and check his citations. If a college student were to be found using citations this way, he would be accused of academic dishonesty or plagiarism.
3) Another big problem that people, Kaplan included, have with Snowden's disclosures is not that they hurt the intelligence community by giving enemies useful information, but, rather, that they do so by damaging the credibility and likability of the relevant intelligence agencies or even the whole U.S. government.
This opinion gets the issue precisely backwards.
It's a bit like the horrid arguments that people made during the Salman "Rushdie affair", when people blamed Mr. Rushdie for inspiring the killings and bombings that resulted from the fatwa on his head, rather than blaming the killers and bombers and fatwa-placers who hoped to terrorize the global community into accepting their backwards religious moral code.
In fact, even more than it is like the Rushdie fatwa response, it is like a childhood bully, who strikes his victim with his own hand and tells him to "stop hitting yourself". To punish or denigrate Edward Snowden because the NSA surveillance was so overreaching that its very public exposure inspires a domestic and international backlash is a bit like if a teacher, coming across the aforementioned bullying scenario, put the victim into detention for hitting himself.
If the only thing standing between somebody's actions and universal condemnation of those same actions is public awareness of them, then it is not he or she who makes us aware of them who is to blame. Let's not get distracted. It is he or she who performed the actions in the first place who is to blame.
The NSA, not Edward Snowden, is responsible for the public backlash against the NSA surveillance programs.
4) Next, Kaplan takes aim at people who argue that Snowden's case is analogous to Daniel Ellsberg's, who leaked The Pentagon Papers, and to that of the people who left the country to escape the draft during the Vietnam War. Kaplan rightly states that those people deserved their pardons.
His argument is as logically convoluted as you might expect by this point in this article. It rests on the premise that the cases are not analogous because the pardons for Ellsberg and for the draft-dodgers came after the historical events (U.S. entry into The Vietnam War) that they opposed were over.
Can this be serious? Draft dodging becomes OK the moment the draft ends? That doesn't even make sense. The propositions that A) "There should not have been a war in the first place" and B) "People were not wrong to avoid the draft where they did not want to take part in a brutal war" are so obviously logical corollaries to C) "Ellsberg and the draft dodgers ought to have been pardoned" that I shudder to have to mention it.
Oh, and also, as Kaplan notes but ignores, Ellsberg himself has drawn the comparison between his story and Snowden's.
5) A similar misunderstanding of the irrelevance of chronology comes up when Kaplan discusses Snowden’s motivations. Says Kaplan: "The Times editorial paints an incomplete picture when it claims that he 'stole a trove of highly classified documents after he became disillusioned with the agency’s voraciousness.' In fact, as Snowden himself told the South China Morning Post, he took his job as an NSA contractor, with Booz Allen Hamilton, because he knew that his position would grant him “access to lists of machines all over the world [that] the NSA hacked.” He stayed there for just three months, enough to do what he came to do."
I’ve heard this criticism a lot, especially when people are grasping at straws to explain just why they feel so strongly that Snowden is a bad guy. But whether from others or from Kaplan, this story, once again, doesn’t add up. And it doesn’t add up because it deliberately and dishonestly neglects to mention the context.
How, I might ask Kaplan, would Snowden have known to take a job at Booz Allen in order to reveal NSA secrets, if those were indeed secrets to him?
The answer is that Snowden was already an intelligence employee in a similar job, just at the CIA rather than with the NSA through Booz Allen. He already knew the relevant information. Whether Mr. Snowden had his crisis of conscience before or after changing between similar jobs does not and cannot reflect on his character and moral backbone. Condemning Snowden for getting a job with the NSA in order to more effectively publicize surveillance state overreach, where he had already decided that said publicization was a moral necessity, is a bit like criticizing him for the brand of flash drive he used to download the files.
6) The article's next and most vicious attack on Snowden really shows Kaplan's hand. He goes after Snowden at length for what he considers to be Snowden's elective ties to Russia and China, as though a man with only one option is responsible for not taking a second and better option. Here Kaplan reveals his historical hangover from the cold war.
I am a young man, and I do not pretend to understand the fear and hatred that the constant threat of nuclear war bred during the cold war. That said, and keeping in mind that I have open-eyed and fiery condemnations for both Russian and Chinese human rights violations, it will simply not do in this day and age to use “Russia” and “China” as scare words. That is not how modern minds, much less good rhetoric, work.
Thinking that Snowden, quite clearly a liberal (note the little L) young man, has some implicit or explicit love for Putin's brutal, homophobic, violent, kleptocratic regime is not something that we can take seriously. The same goes for China.
Kaplan quotes Snowden praising both Hong Kong's history of press freedom and Putin's Russia, but, as usual, it is taken out of context and morally reversed. In fact, it is quite obvious when you read Snowden's words, in or out of context, that they are expressing gratitude only for the asylum that Hong Kong and Russia have given him, not praise for the systems of governance in those nations. "President Obama," Snowden is clearly saying, "will you not be even as lenient as a one party state is?"
And what has Obama's response to Snowden been? Does Snowden have a good reason to be so afraid of America as to prefer to live in even Russia (where, I might add, he has only been granted a year of asylum)?
When the scandals first broke, Obama said that the government isn't listening in on anyone's phone calls. He lied. When Snowden was identified as the source, Obama scoffed that he wasn't going to be "scrambling the jets to get a 29-year-old hacker." The very next week, in an unprecedented (un)diplomatic move, Obama scrambled the jets to force a plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales to land in Europe because of rumors that Snowden was aboard. In other words, he lied.
I could go on.
So no, Snowden does not want to be in Russia because he thinks Russia is so great. For that, he could have simply moved there. Snowden wants to be in Russia not because it has a record of treating its citizens with greater respect than does America. Rather, he wants to be there for the simple reason that they will not put him in jail and torture him for being a whistle-blower on America, as the American government has proven it is willing to do even to the much less emotionally and mentally stable Chelsea Manning. This is a simple, understandable, and morally neutral calculation on Snowden's part.
7) Next comes the oath argument. Oh, the oath argument.
Any Snowden critic, backed into an intellectual corner, will deploy this argument, saying that, whatever the other facts may be, Snowden swore an oath of secrecy, Snowden broke said oath, ipso facto mortal sin, bad person, going to hell.
This is absurd. For one thing, Snowden also swore an oath to protect and uphold the U.S. Constitution (when he was a CIA employee). These black and white thinkers do not offer any advice as to what to do when one has sworn two countervailing oaths. For another, nobody really believes that an oath is universally morally binding above all other moral considerations. Not one person reading this thinks that, if he or she entered a neighbor's basement on the condition that he or she swear an oath not to disclose what is inside it, it is right to uphold that oath if their neighbor turned out to be Ariel Castro. At least I hope very, very deeply that they would not keep that oath.
8) The most deceptive and confusing thing that Snowden's detractors seem to do without fail, and Kaplan is no exception, is to focus entirely or almost entirely on the programs that Snowden revealed first; Especially, the collection of domestic phone metadata from private telecom companies by secret court subpoena.
This program was the first that Snowden made public, way back in early July, even before the more disconcerting PRISM program. It is indeed shocking that the placer and receiver of every phone call since at least 2007 has been recorded by the U.S. government, but that is by far the least upsetting revelation that Snowden has provided. It is also likely legal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.
Why, I might ask, do Snowden's detractors almost never discuss programs like MUSCULAR and XKEYSCORE? Why do they not mention the literal dozens of more overreaching activities that we have learned our so-called protectors (whom we fund) engage in? Why do Kaplan and his ilk not seem to know that it is now confirmed that the NSA is also collecting the GPS location data from our cellphones. We also know that at least part of the intelligence branch, specifically the FBI, has a technology which allows it to remotely activate and monitor people's laptop webcams without turning on the light which indicates that it is active. It's a safe assumption that if the FBI can do that, so can the NSA and any number of other agencies. This is the point at which I break down and use the word Orwellian.
MUSCULAR is a program that steals data from the biggest internet companies in the world, like Google and Yahoo!, without the knowledge or consent of said companies. It's worth noting that: A) most people think of email, which both of those companies provide major services for, like they think of "snail" mail. That is, both secure and protected by law. And B) All of these companies, some of the biggest boons to the U.S. economy, rely on a public perception of them as secure, private, and technologically savvy, an image which the MUSCULAR program stands to pervert or destroy.
XKEYSCORE is significantly worse. XKEYSCORE is a program which records "nearly everything a user does on the internet". I don't think I have to detail how much of modern life takes place on the internet. The program gathers social media profiles, browsing history, and emails, among other things. NSA employees or contractors with access to it need or needed no prior authorization, much less a warrant, to use it. Unsurprisingly, this has lead to abuses, including at least a dozen admitted cases of NSA employees using this spying technology to snoop on spouses, significant others or prospective lovers.
FASCIA, the program that records all of our cell phone GPS location data was repeatedly lied about, covered up, and hidden from the American public. I'd just like to note that in the movie The Dark Knight, the plot point which was the major moral centerpiece of the film was Batman revealing that he could track everyone's location via their cellphones. The moral crux of the movie's climax is when Morgan Freeman's character, Lucius Fox, the wise ethical voice in the film, says he will not be part of giving anyone that much power, and threatens to walk out. This is the same character who gave a vindictive, violent, psychologically scarred vigilante a tank. The moral tension of the movie, the highest grossing and most popular action movie ever at the time, resolves only when Batman destroys this technology. Infer from that what you will about a good public attitude regarding privacy.
For further information, look up more of these NSA programs, like TUMULT, and TURMOIL. (Why yes, funny you should ask, they do all sound like a nickname that a bond villain might give to his laser.)
Remember the massive outcry about Bush's warrantless wiretapping? Remember what The Left (along with a few brave conservatives) had to say about that? Why do those righteously outraged arguments fail when the scale of the crime is multiplied many thousand fold?
And why does Kaplan seem so focused on Snowden's very first and least damning revelations? I'll speculate; Perhaps lots of Snowden's detractors became entrenched so firmly in their opinion of him as a disruptor and a sabateur and a hacker-kid that by the time they could hear him eloquently defending the charges against himself, and by the time they could have formed their opinions in light of the most serious abuses of power, some of which I just detailed, their minds were already closed.
What I'd say to them, and what I will say to Mr. Kaplan, to whom I plan on emailing this article, is simply that it is not too late to defend those who "defend freedom" by actually standing up for particular freedoms, rather than those who "defend freedom" by advancing the coercive might of a particular political entity called America. It is, after all, the American thing to do.