David Brooks writes in The New York Times
on Edward Snowden:
From what we know so far, Edward Snowden appears to be the ultimate unmediated
man. Though obviously terrifically bright, he could not successfully work his
way through the institution of high school. Then he failed to navigate his way
through community college.
According to The Washington Post, he has not been a
regular presence around his mother’s house for years. When a neighbor in Hawaii
tried to introduce himself, Snowden cut him off and made it clear he wanted no
neighborly relationships. He went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton and the
C.I.A., but he has separated himself from them, too.
Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply
committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more
unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of
social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are
living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood
institutions and adult family commitments.
If you live a life unshaped by the mediating
institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain
way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative
structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world.
Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing
This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct
strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep
suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are
suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual
preference should be supreme. You’re more likely to donate to the Ron Paul for
president campaign, as Snowden did.
It’s logical, given this background and mind-set, that
Snowden would sacrifice his career to expose data mining procedures of the
National Security Agency. Even if he has not been able to point to any specific
abuses, he was bound to be horrified by the confidentiality endemic to military
and intelligence activities. And, of course, he’s right that the procedures he’s
unveiled could lend themselves to abuse in the future.
But Big Brother is not the only danger facing the
country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of
cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so
individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to
knit others together and look after the common good.
This is not a danger Snowden is addressing. In fact,
he is making everything worse.
For society to function well, there have to be basic
levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to
common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents,
Snowden has betrayed all of these things.
He betrayed honesty and integrity, the foundation of
all cooperative activity. He made explicit and implicit oaths to respect the
secrecy of the information with which he was entrusted. He betrayed his oaths.
He betrayed his friends. Anybody who worked with him
will be suspect. Young people in positions like that will no longer be trusted
with responsibility for fear that they will turn into another Snowden.
He betrayed his employers. Booz Allen and the C.I.A.
took a high-school dropout and offered him positions with lavish salaries. He is
violating the honor codes of all those who enabled him to rise.
He betrayed the cause of open government. Every time
there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little
tighter. They limit debate a little more.
He betrayed the privacy of us all. If federal security
agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older,
more intrusive eavesdropping methods.
He betrayed the Constitution. The founders did not
create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral
decisions about what should be exposed. Snowden self-indulgently short-circuited
the democratic structures of accountability, putting his own preferences above
Snowden faced a moral dilemma. On the one hand, he had
information about a program he thought was truly menacing. On the other hand, he
had made certain commitments as a public servant, as a member of an
organization, and a nation. Sometimes leakers have to leak. The information they
possess is so grave that it demands they violate their oaths.
But before they do, you hope they will interrogate
themselves closely and force themselves to confront various barriers of
resistance. Is the information so grave that it’s worth betraying an oath,
circumventing the established decision-making procedures, unilaterally exposing
secrets that can never be reclassified?
Judging by his comments reported in the news media so
far, Snowden was obsessed with the danger of data mining but completely
oblivious to his betrayals and toward the damage he has done to social
arrangements and the invisible bonds that hold them together.
Tom Freidman writes in The New York Times
on same subject:
I’m glad I live in a country with people who are vigilant in defending civil
liberties. But as I listen to the debate about the disclosure of two government
programs designed to track suspected phone and e-mail contacts of terrorists, I
do wonder if some of those who unequivocally defend this disclosure are behaving
as if 9/11 never happened — that the only thing we have to fear is
government intrusion in our lives, not the intrusion of those who gather in
secret cells in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan and plot how to topple our
tallest buildings or bring down U.S. airliners with bombs planted inside
underwear, tennis shoes or computer printers.
Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of
privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far,
does not appear to have happened. But I worry even more about another 9/11. That
is, I worry about something that’s already happened once — that was staggeringly
costly — and that terrorists aspire to repeat.
I worry about that even more, not because I don’t
care about civil liberties, but because what I cherish most about America is our
open society, and I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack
involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we
know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would
tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be
damned, just make sure this does not happen again.” That is what I fear
That is why I’ll reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade
off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in phone
numbers called and e-mail addresses — and then have to go to a judge to get a
warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress — to
prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at
anyone, any e-mail, any phone call, anywhere, anytime.
So I don’t believe that Edward Snowden, the leaker of
all this secret material, is some heroic whistle-blower. No, I believe Snowden
is someone who needed a whistle-blower. He needed someone to challenge him with
the argument that we don’t live in a world any longer where our government can
protect its citizens from real, not imagined, threats without using big data —
where we still have an edge — under constant judicial review. It’s not ideal.
But if one more 9/11-scale attack gets through, the cost to civil liberties will
be so much greater.
A hat tip to Andrew Sullivan for linking on his blog
to an essay by David
, the creator of HBO’s “The Wire.” For me, it cuts right to the core
of the issue.
“You would think that the government was listening in
to the secrets of 200 million Americans from the reaction and the hyperbole
being tossed about,” wrote Simon. “And you would think that rather than a legal
court order, which is an inevitable consequence of legislation that we drafted
and passed, something illegal had been discovered to the government’s shame.
Nope. ... The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on
which the F.B.I. and N.S.A. are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism
leads from that data. ... I know it’s big and scary that the government wants a
database of all phone calls. And it’s scary that they’re paying attention to the
Internet. And it’s scary that your cellphones have GPS installed. ... The
question is not should the resulting data exist. It does. ... The question is
more fundamental: Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public
safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse
individual liberties and violate personal privacy — and in a manner that is
unsupervised. And to that, The Guardian and those who are wailing jeremiads
about this pretend-discovery of U.S. big data collection are noticeably silent.
We don’t know of any actual abuse.”
We do need to be constantly on guard for abuses. But
the fact is, added Simon, that for at least the last two presidencies “this kind
of data collection has been a baseline logic of an American anti-terrorism
effort that is effectively asked to find the needles before they are planted
into haystacks, to prevent even such modest, grass-rooted conspiracies as the
Boston Marathon bombing before they occur.”
To be sure, secret programs, like the virtually
unregulated drone attacks, can lead to real excesses that have to be checked.
But here is what is also real, Simon concluded:
“Those planes really did hit those buildings. And that
bomb did indeed blow up at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. And we really
are in a continuing, low-intensity, high-risk conflict with a diffuse, committed
and ideologically motivated enemy. And, for a moment, just imagine how much
bloviating would be wafting across our political spectrum if, in the wake of an
incident of domestic terrorism, an American president and his administration had
failed to take full advantage of the existing telephonic data to do what is
possible to find those needles in the haystacks.”
And, I’d add, not just bloviating. Imagine how many
real restrictions to our beautiful open society we would tolerate if there were
another attack on the scale of 9/11. Pardon me if I blow that whistle.