Jun
11
2013

Pundits vs. Edward Snowden

Informing public of government spying 'self-indulgent' and 'grandiose'

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Journalism attracts whistleblowers. In fact, some reporters need whistleblowers in order to do their jobs.  But there are plenty of people working in the media who don't have much use for whistleblowers--and they've been having a field day going after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Washington Post columnist Matt Miller (6/11/13) explained that "what Snowden exposed was not some rogue government-inside-the-government conspiracy. It's a program that’s legal, reviewed by Congress and subject to court oversight."

Or to put it another way, it's a program that's secret, that the nation's top spy lies to Congress about, and the Supreme Court refuses to review--because, being secret, no one can prove they're affected by it.

Miller went on:

Daniel Ellsberg says Snowden is a "hero."  Let me suggest a different prism through which to view that term. Somewhere in the intelligence community is another 29-year-old computer whiz whose name we'll never know. That person joined the government after 9/11 because they felt inspired to serve the nation in its hour of need. For years they’ve sweated to perfect programs that can sort through epic reams of data to identify potential threats. Some Americans are alive today because of her work.

As one security analyst put it this week, to find a needle in a haystack, you need the haystack. If we're going to romanticize a young nerd in the intelligence world, my Unknown Coder trumps the celebrity waiting in Hong Kong for Diane Sawyer’s call any day.

It's hard to imagine seeing Snowden sitting down with Sawyer anytime soon, but Miller's certainly not alone in speculating about Snowden's motives or psyche.

David Brooks

David Brooks

New York Times columnist David Brooks (6/11/13) writes that Snowden "could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school. Then he failed to navigate his way through community college." And he "has not been a regular presence around his mother's house for years." But it's bigger than that; like Miller, Brooks sees a real threat from people who don't respect authority:

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 NSA documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.

He elaborated:

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 everything else.

By that logic, it's hard to see how anyone could possibly ever divulge anything that the government claims to be secret--which might suit Brooks just fine.

In the Washington Post (6/11/13), Richard Cohen managed to insult both Snowden and columnist Glenn Greenwald, referring to "a remarkably overwrought interview conducted by the vainglorious Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian." In response to Greenwald writing that Snowden wears a red hood when he types passwords into his computer, Cohen inventively sneers that Snowden will "go down as a cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood."

Cohen doesn't understand the fuss anyway, since private companies like Google have all sorts of intelligence on him. He concludes:

Everything about Edward Snowden is ridiculously cinematic. He is not paranoiac; he is merely narcissistic. He jettisoned a girlfriend, a career and, undoubtedly, his personal freedom to expose programs that were known to our elected officials and could have been deduced by anyone who has ever googled anything. History will not record him as "one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers." History is more likely to forget him. Soon, you can google that.

Jeffrey Toobin

Jeffrey Toobin

And the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin  (6/10/13) wrote that Snowden is "a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison," and that

any marginally attentive citizen, much less NSA employee or contractor, knows that the entire mission of the agency is to intercept electronic communications.

If you know that an agency intercepts communications, why wouldn't you assume that it intercepts every communication, Toobin seems to be arguing.

Appearing on CNN (6/10/13), Toobin explained that there's a proper way to blow the whistle, and this sure isn't it: "There are channels for whistleblowers inside agencies, through Congress, through the courts, not through Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian. That's not what you're supposed to do."

What's the right way to inform the public, then? Toobin says:

Well, the public has a right to know, but the way to bring it to public attention is not to commit crimes. And, yes, it is possible he wouldn't get as much attention if he simply went to the senators, like Jeff Merkley, like Senator Udall, who cared deeply about this issue and are doing it the right way. Instead, he just threw this stuff out to newspaper reporters at the Washington Post and the Guardian, who were more responsible than he was, who actually didn't publish everything they get.

Sure--go to a couple of senators who have long warned that they aren't allowed to say what they know about government surveillance programs, and tell them that you want to share top secret NSA documents about those programs. That would have worked--if Snowden's goal was to be arrested immediately.

There were others, like Time's Joe Klein, who didn't go after Snowden like this--he merely argued (6/10/13) that this was all old news: "First of all, we pretty much knew everything that has 'broken' in the past week."

And in the Washington Post, Walter Pincus (6/11/13) sounded the same notes. He ran through the history: USA Today (5/11/06) reported a very similar NSA story in 2006, the Bush administration responded, public opinion polls seemed to support government policies. In 2008, Congress passed amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and last year there were solid reports by veteran reporter James Bamford (Wired, 3/15/12) about the massive NSA storage facility being built in Utah. So, Pincus writes:

Was there any follow-up in the mainstream media to Bamford's disclosure, or anything close to the concerns voiced on Capitol Hill this past week? No.

That’s because the American public at large is more accepting of the government’s involvement in their lives--along with Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple--than is Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old who leaked the highly classified NSA documents. He appears to believe the public is unaware, and, as he told the Guardian, knowing "what's happening, you [meaning the public] should decide whether we should be doing this."

So if media don't pursue a given story, it's because the public has decided it's not interested, or tacitly approves of a government policy of indeterminate scope? It's a surprising revelation that this is how the media decide what stories to report.

As Gawker's Hamilton Nolan writes (6/11/13), journalists "have to acknowledge that Edward Snowden did something quite admirable." He notes, "Without Snowden's act, the public's knowledge of what is being done to them in their own name would be much poorer."

That's true, unless you think the public either already knows all of this--or that they shouldn't.