So what do we think of Edward Snowden now? Thumbs up or down? White hat or black hat? Three cheers or Bronx cheer?
NBC News says it’s really that simple. In the wake of Brian Williams’ chat with Snowden in Moscow, the network website invited Americans to vote on Twitter, to choose between two hashtags: #patriot or #traitor. Anyone hoping for a smidgen of nuance (like maybe #sortofapatriot or #slightlytraitor) was out of luck.
Which was nuts, really. Because you could’ve easily watched the interview and felt profoundly conflicted about the guy who blew the lid off the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance. Somewhere between “patriot” and “traitor,” there seems to be a big gray area. Maybe Snowden did the right thing for the wrong reasons, or maybe he did the wrong thing for the right reasons. Maybe it’s difficult to strike the perfect balance between liberty and security, between obeying the law and obeying one’s conscience.
So if you’re still confused about Snowden, 11 months after he achieved instant fame (or infamy), don’t sweat it, because you have plenty of company.
The federal courts can’t even agree on whether his revelations have been good or bad for America. Last December, one judge ruled that the NSA’s sweeping domestic snooping is “Orwellian,” a “significantly likely” breach of the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures; but 11 days later, another federal judge called the NSA’s snooping “a vital tool” in the war on terrorism – a tool that works precisely “because it collects everything.” And here’s another curveball: The judge who praised the NSA was a Bill Clinton appointee; the judge who rebuked the NSA was a George W. Bush appointee.
I watched the NBC interview on Wednesday night, and I can swing with a lot of what Snowden said about the dictates of conscience. Such as: “Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your Constitution….I think the most important idea is to remember that there have been times throughout history where what is right is not the same as what is legal. Sometimes to do the right thing, you have to break a law.”
OK, that’s in the American tradition of Henry David Thoreau, circa 1846 (“The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right”), and that’s basically what Martin Luther King did when he went to the streets to challenge the segregation laws. If not for King’s call to conscience, codified racism might not have become a top-tier issue. And if not for Edward Snowden’s actions, we might still be in the dark about the NSA’s ability to routinely track our phone records, emails, and web work.
He has triggered a worthy public debate about the government’s talent for spreading its tentacles. It’s far better to know the truth than to swallow the government’s lies. (Three months before Snowden went public, a senator asked U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” To which Clapper replied, “No, sir. Not wittingly.”)
I’d rather know the truth of the government’s reach, however discomfiting the truth might be. Snowden, in the NBC interview, shared one particularly creepy example. He said that NSA analysts “can actually watch people’s Internet communications, watch their Internet correspondence, watch their thoughts as they type,” by watching the word and phrase deletions in real time. He called this kind of surveillance “an extraordinary intrusion…into the way you think,” and that sounds about right. Imagine how easily a future paranoid president – a Richard Nixon 2.0 – could monitor his political enemies, starting with their keyboard strokes.
Much of the sweeping surveillance was sparked by the Patriot Act, the blank check that a cowed Congress wrote shortly after 9/11. Snowden said – and this sounds right as well – that the government, post-9/11, sought “to exploit the national trauma that we all suffered together and worked so hard to come through, to justify programs that have never been shown to keep us safe, but cost us liberties and freedoms that we don’t need to give up, and our Constitution says we should not give up.”
So maybe this makes Snowden a patriot – excuse me, #patriot – but only with caveats. For instance:
I’m still bugged by his longstanding status as a Russian houseguest, dissing the flaws of our democracy from his perch in an authoritarian state. He told NBC that he has never met Vladimir Putin, and that he has “no relationship with the Russian government at all.” I don’t buy it. On April 17, Putin hosted a televised Q&A session – and Snowden surfaced to ask him a question. Snowden wants us to believe that he was free to do that, despite having “no relationship with the Russian government” – a government that has hosted him for nearly a year, yet supposedly has never tried to debrief him.
Snowden also says there’s no evidence that he has harmed America, but Michael McFaul, a former U.S ambassador to Russia, credibly argues that Snowden’s revelations damaged our diplomatic relationships with allies who realized they were targets of NSA surveillance. McFaul said on the air this week, “That’s damage to the United States. If you’re a patriot, you don’t want to damage our relationships with our allies.”
Although maybe we shouldn’t be spying on our allies in the first place. But should it be up to Snowden, or some other mid-level type, to make that decision? Should one employe’s conscience drive our statecraft?
So I’d probably cast my vote for #patriotbutontheotherhand….No, wait, there’s one other thing:
During the interview, Snowden said he’s been busy watching HBO’s The Wire – however, “the second season is not so great.” Now he’s really lost me. That opinion alone is #groundsforprosecution.
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