The “debate” over Edward Snowden, framed by those who denounce him and the media sycophants who follow them, is epitomized by the question of whether he is a “traitor” (this term almost always comes first) or a “patriot.”
Talk about biting the hand that feeds you: no single individual in many a year has given the press so many scoops over so protracted a period, if ever. And more bombshells are promised to follow in what, if not the greatest story ever told, is arguably the biggest: how the national security apparatus fashioned over the last century and put on steroids by modern computing technology has swallowed political freedom and republican government.
If anyone has ever deserved the gratitude of the press, not to mention the rest of the public, it’s Edward Snowden. But, although grudging acknowledgment has been given to Snowden as the source of this cornucopia, I haven’t read a single mainstream editorial or op-ed columnist who has stood up and simply called Snowden what he is: a hero of extraordinary resourcefulness and courage, the David who fired his slingshot squarely at the brow of our great Goliath, the modern security state, and bled its dirtiest secrets for all to see.
What Snowden revealed was that the modern state spies on all its citizens 24/7, simply because they exist and simply because it can. Big Brother never had it this good, nor did the Gestapo or the KGB. No conceivable purpose can justify this, especially not actual security: from 9/11 to the Boston Marathon bombings, we’ve been caught flatfooted despite warnings that any halfway competent intelligence service would have pounced on before disaster struck. Rather, the information overload the spy system generates — the haystack that buries the needle — arguably makes us less safe from would-be attackers while rendering us all totally exposed to the state; that is, politically unsafe in the highest and final degree.
Personal privacy is the basis of all political freedom, and its absence is the definition of tyranny. By that definition, tyranny has already been established in these United States, and not here alone. Among the things Snowden has revealed is how other so-called liberal democracies, such as the United Kingdom and France, have been spying on their citizens exactly as the American government does. The United States is not an aberration, a state run amok; it is simply a pattern for the rest. It is the modern state itself that has become the enemy of liberty.
This wouldn’t have been news to the Founding Fathers, who were highly suspicious of state power even as they set it up. And it isn’t entirely news to us, because much of what Snowden had to tell us was already known or suspected. It was the enormous trove of documents he released and the fact that he disclosed himself publicly as their source that concentrated public attention on a vaguely perceived problem as a national emergency of the first order.
I don’t think the implications of what Snowden has revealed have been fully digested even yet. But the fact that his material came from the bowels of the government itself and that the government itself was forced to concede its veracity gave it a power and credibility it could have gained in no other way. Snowden’s told us that he tried to go through channels with the concerns he had over the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection, and I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt it. He certainly could not have wished to find himself in the position he now is, as a man without a country. But he could not have achieved the end he sought in any other way. Like Daniel Ellsberg, he had to spill the beans from the inside, and in the most public way possible.
It’s said that God loves the repentant sinner more than the perfect saint. Edward Snowden worked for the beast; he made his career with it and earned a secure and comfortable living. Religion — that is, the awareness that he was in some sense at the service of evil — came to him slowly. With that came the appreciation of another higher good: citizenship. He has served it as no one else in recent memory.
Which brings us to the interview. You’d think if there was one guy on the planet journalists would want to speak to, it was Ed Snowden. It took a year, however, for a major American media outlet to talk to him. This isn’t to deny credit to Brian Williams and NBC for finally arranging a sit-down. News organizations tread warily before stepping on official toes, especially in dealing with an administration that has targeted whistleblowers for retribution as none other in the past and has undermined the very notion of a free press by threatening journalists with prison for refusing to disclose confidential sources.
But Snowden has appeared on televised outlets in other countries, including Russia, where he engaged personally with Vladimir Putin. Imagine a world in which Snowden could address President Barack Obama and put a few choice questions to the commander in chief. It’s not one we’ll likely be seeing anytime soon.
Williams took a careful tone with Snowden, but he did let him speak his piece. For those of us who’d never seen Snowden physically below the neck, he was a rather slight man with an owlish expression highlighted by a small goatee. He was thoroughly poised and controlled, a man who’d thought through his position with great care and expounded it reasonably, articulately and, at times, eloquently. Even the new head of the NSA, Adm. Michael Rogers, expressed a certain (perhaps sneaking) admiration for him, which certainly can’t be said of Rogers’ boss or his other minions, and of the great majority in Congress either.
Snowden came off as a kind of Madisonian liberal, who concedes the need for state powers (in this case, intelligence gathering for security purposes) but wants them carefully contained and monitored. That may be too great a hope, and it raises, too, the larger question of blowback: how the West’s exploitation of the Muslim world in the past century has incited the terrorism we face.
Confronting the question of how far terrorism is in fact the creation of the modern state itself could take us a lot closer to dealing with it. But that takes us beyond Snowden himself. It takes us back to ourselves and the acts performed in our name. Snowden has done as much as I can imagine any private citizen doing, and if the Presidential Medal of Freedom means anything it should be shipped posthaste to Moscow. The most remarkable thing about his interview was the criticism he levied at the civil rights violations of his host country, Russia, on which such physical liberty as he enjoys directly depends. Putin must think he has a very odd bird on his hands. He certainly has a rare one.
As for the argument raised by Williams, that Snowden should face the music in his own country as Ellsberg did before him, Snowden properly replied that the charges made against him under the Espionage Act preclude any meaningful defense, since the question of intent cannot be raised (which raises itself the question of the Act’s constitutionality). That’s not even to address the despicable innuendoes of Mike Rogers (no relation to the admiral) and Dianne Feinstein, respectively chairs of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, that Snowden has given state secrets to Russia. Nor does it deal with the fact that John Kerry, the third-ranking officer in the line of presidential succession, has publicly called Snowden a “traitor” and a “coward.” That’s just the ticket for a fair trial, isn’t it? And as for Daniel Ellsberg, he himself has rejected any comparison of Snowden’s case with his own.
If you didn’t see the Snowden interview when it aired, catch it online. You might not agree with everything he has to say, but there’s no question you’ll meet a patriot. Writing as I do on the quarter century anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacres, it’s an acquaintance you’ll find worth your while. It isn’t too often that a man stands up to a tank.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].