Common sense is not so common – the “Snowden saga” three months on. Part one: Tinker, Tailor, Hero, Traitor?

Image“Protesters supporting Edward Snowden hold a photo of him during a demonstration outside the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong”. Reuters/Bobby Yip

It has been more than three months now since Edward Snowden, former employee of defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, flew to Hong Kong from Hawaii, carrying four laptops that gave him access to highly classified material.

Only days later, the Guardian published the first of what has become an extensive series of stories on systematic mass surveillance carried out by the NSA on US citizens and people and governments all over the world.

Even though it is becoming increasingly clear that a lot of what Edward Snowden said in those initial interviews (Parts one and two here) in which he outed himself as the source behind the leaks is true, people continue to defend the NSA and its surveillance apparatus, insisting that these practices are necessary and that Snowden committed an act of treason by exposing them.

Over the past three months, the Guardian, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and people who have helped them have had their names smeared, their partners detained, their equipment taken or destroyed, and their motives questioned countless times.

I think it should be pretty clear from my previous blog posts what my view of the situation is.

Surely, not many of us want to live in a world where every bit of communication is recorded? Where journalists, their spouses or others not guilty of any crime are detained and questioned for hours in gross disregard of their rights? Where one country is so powerful that it not only thinks itself above international law but where many others are so afraid or eager to please that they are willing to tolerate, even replicate, that view? Where people who inform us of things we need to know are hunted, marooned, abandoned, made stateless, called liars, thieves and traitors?

To me and many others I am sure it is simply common sense that the NSA, GCHQ, and the governments of the US, UK and Europe have gone too far (or not far enough, depending the subject).

Sadly, Voltaire’s observation that “common sense is not so common” seem to be proving correct yet again.

Yet again in the most recent weeks, the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald (and his partner), Edward Snowden, and people who support them, have been called liars, traitors and – most recently – terrorists, or people who condone terrorism. Consider Louise Mensch’s or Imani Gandy’s blogs on the subject.

Both are of course entitled to their opinions, even though personally I take issue with Mensch’s emotionally overcharged but apparently under-thought (not to mention under-researched) accusations, and Gandy’s denunciation of Glenn Greenwald as a “bully”. More so, because the person Gandy quotes on the matter is none other than Joshua Foust, the flaws in whose arguments I myself and others have previously criticized. Probably, that makes me one of Greenwald’s “minions” or a “Snowdenite” (I wonder if the term is going to make the OED like “omnishambles” recently did).

Be that as it may, I have so far made sure to stay away from the “hero-traitor” rhetoric so readily employed by both Snowden’s supporters and his opponents alike. Truth be told, I find it a bit silly. Never minding the fact that the dichotomy paints things in black and white, I hardly think that either term sufficiently summarizes what Snowden and his disclosures have come to mean.

I should imagine that the people calling Snowden a “traitor” not only feel he has violated their trust and betrayed his country but that he has also violated a principle of obedience loyalty or patriotism that seems much more entrenched in the US collective consciousness than it is in others. Snowden’s own words that “the country is worth dying for” seem to attest to that – only, he has a different interpretation of them than some of his peers seem to do.

I certainly do not share that view. Frankly, the words make me uncomfortable; they sound excessive and bring to mind countless instances in which people zealously acted to die for Queen (or King or President) and country without really thinking about the consequences. Personally, I never thought dying for a concept as abstract as “the country” was a particularly good or heroic idea. However, that might just be because I cannot know what “the country” signifies for Mr Snowden. I can certainly imagine, even follow, that some of the people calling him “hero” appreciate the sentiment. By contrast, the traitor-faction of society would probably contest that he didn’t really think about the consequences of his actions either.

Considering the facts – that he walked away with a trove of NSA and other secrets and made them available to the public, something which, given the abuse that has led him to do it and the risks that he has taken, seems an honourable and brave thing to do – you could argue that both terms apply. I, for one, believe that he did something very courageous and very necessary. Quite possibly at the eleventh hour too.

If asked, Snowden himself would probably say that he is neither hero, nor traitor but patriot. Again, not my favourite way of putting things but personally, after reading Peter Maass excellent feature in the New York Times, I am less reluctant to call Snowden and the people who work with him heroes. Consider the risks they continue to take, the sacrifices they continue to make, their commitment to what is an extremely uncomfortable, if not outright dangerous, cause, their refusal to back down and simply swallow the half-truths they’re being told, the care they are taking with what they know. These are things I personally value very much and I do admire them for that.

At least until proven otherwise.

And yes, that absolutely includes Glenn Greenwald, against whom in particular there is a lot of name-calling. Arguably, it does look like he is asking for it sometimes. Take his alleged threat that he would be “far more aggressive in [his] reporting from now” and that the UK would “be sorry for what they did.” I am the first to admit that the words were perhaps a little ill-chosen. I also think, however, that it should be taken into consideration that the man had been through the ordeal of not knowing for hours if his spouse was going to be charged with some bogus act of terrorism or aiding and abetting or whatever it’s called these days. More than that, he had just witnessed what has been widely criticized as an attack on press freedom and an attempt at intimidation. Given the immediate circumstances, I should think it understandable that any initial response from Mr Greenwald sounded a little heated.

If that’s even the case.

I have harboured this hunch that the exact meaning of what he said might have got lost in the translation from Portuguese to English. Greenwald himself later tried to rectify this in an email to Reuters: “I was asked what the outcome would be for the UK, and I said they’d come to regret this because of the world reaction, how it made them look, and how it will embolden me – not that I would start publishing documents as punishment or revenge that I wouldn’t otherwise have published.” As far as I’m concerned there is little reason, given his handling of the situation so far, to believe that he would launch some act of revenge that flew in the face of his responsibility towards his source. A responsibility that both he, Laura Poitras, and the Guardian seem to take seriously.

Now, it’s up to anyone to decide for themselves whether or not they think this is believable or whether my argument holds water. Obviously, nothing anyone says will ever stop Greenwald’s and Snowden’s critics from at best accusing, at worst defaming them, no matter how much care Greenwald and other people involved in the reporting have so far taken with the Snowden materials. That care itself has been hotly debated, as have Edward Snowden’s assurances that he never meant to harm the US. I don’t think that debate will seize as long as new documents continue to be published.

And it may be that enough words have been written and spoken over this, i.e. Snowden and Greenwald as persons. If you think that’s the case, don’t read on, I may just be indulging myself here.

However, I believe that the debate over Snowden and the dichotomies that fuel it are worth looking at. People love a good dichotomy, don’t they? Pitching two extremes against it each other makes it seem very simple to choose the one that best describes one’s sentiment.

And there is very much an opposition of two camps here: Snowden critics shout at (and ridicule, eh Ms Mensch?) Snowden supporters and vice versa. In between them, possibly, sit a few people who are not quite sure who or what to believe, together with some others who correctly remind us that we must not forget to “talk substance”. They are right of course. Yet talking substance is not always easy in a highly charged atmosphere, particularly when one or both sides try to deflect attention away from it.

In any case, I have always thought that to expect the message and the messenger to be treated completely separately was perhaps a little too much to ask. After all, if nothing else, John Bolton’s argument that Snowden’s leaks are a grave threat to national security, shows us that people do worry about what the leaks, his decision to go public and his acceptance of asylum in Russia tell us about Edward Snowden’s character (as to the latter, I still believe it doesn’t tell us anything much, other than that Snowden was forced to make decision in reaction to the very unfavourable situation the US government had created for him. I will keep repeating that view too. Ad nauseam).

Much of Mr Bolton’s argument (published after the first revelations in June) is of course outdated by now. More than that, it has been proven wrong. For example, what may, to some, have looked like a combination of “elements of truth […] paranoid speculation, outright lies and pure hype” have since turned out to be quite accurate assessments on Snowden’s part. Also, three months on, we do seem to have a pretty clear idea that Snowden did not, in fact, jeopardize US agents. Rather, as far as we know, he has stuck to his promise not to reveal any material of the kind that directly endangers people’s lives. As far as I’m aware, there is no direct proof, either, that Snowden’s leaks did “endanger[…] the national security of 300 million other Americans.” Yet this seems to be the one argument that many of his opponents still rely on, not only to justify the powers given to the NSA but also their condemnation of what Snowden did.

I would also argue that the claim that “[t]he NSA’s programs, at least, were approved by all three branches of our government, two elected by the people and the third populated by the first two” is simply false. The debate the Snowden leaks have prompted in Congress is but one example that these programmes do not find the approval of all branches of government or the majority of Americans.

Yet, Mr Bolton’s opinion is exemplary of a view held by many who have chosen the traitor-side of that particular dichotomy – hero/traitor being only one of many pairs of opposites evoked in relation to Snowden and the people he works with.

By contrast, Jerry Kroth calls Snowden a hero who courageously toppled a giant with nothing more than a slingshot – a rather overused but perhaps still effective metaphor.

Whether or not either is valid yet remains to be seen. After all, in light of everything, the question of how much can we ever really know is more pressing than ever.

That said, it does seem clearer, three months on, that much of what Snowden said in those initial interviews was valid. I think it is important to point that out because Snowden, as the messenger, may be more important to the evaluation of the substance of his leaks than some people want to admit. I don’t think that Snowden was oblivious to that either. I understand that it is one of the reasons why he came forward in the first place.

People who do not trust Snowden or Greenwald will find it hard to trust their disclosures and will not easily be persuaded to discuss them objectively – obviously, the name-callers will probably never be persuaded to discuss anything objectively.

Which is why I propose that we look back at the story so far. Let us attempt a round-up of what Snowden said and how much of it seems accurate. It may just help us see a little more clearly who has the better arguments; the messenger, his “minions”, or the people who are so quick to symbolically shoot him.

I will attempt to do a bit of that in my next posts. As it seems a bit of an undertaking and I have taken some (perfectly valid and much appreciated) criticism for the lengths of my posts, I will spread it out.

Watch this space and thank you for your kind attention.


One thought on “Common sense is not so common – the “Snowden saga” three months on. Part one: Tinker, Tailor, Hero, Traitor?

  1. Pingback: Doomsday, discussions, resolutions and porn: surveillance-related developments this week | Notes from Self

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