“We have plenty of evidence that he destroyed our freedom!” “May we see it?” “No.”
Here’s a really easy question: who do you trust more, Edward Snowden and the ACLU or the NSA/CIA/Congress? For most people, probably 90% of people, that’s a really easy question, though it is probably split pretty evenly, around as easily as the election. And depending on the answer, you can be pretty certain of their vote.
A lot of people who would immediately distrust the NSA and the CIA, small-government conservatives who are varying degrees of black helicopter types, instantly start screeching like Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers when they hear the letters “ACLU”, and so to them, Snowden is a traitor. Other people instinctively assume that the intelligence services, and indeed the whole intelligence community, are a pack of habitual liars.
This is of course relevant now as Edward Snowden, the ACLU, and various civil liberty groups have been pushing for a Presidential pardon for his crimes, tied in to the new Oliver Stone movie, which is actually a really weird sentence to write. In The Guardian, he argued that “the disclosure of the scale of surveillance by US and British intelligence agencies was not only morally right but had left citizens better off.”
“Yes, there are laws on the books that say one thing, but that is perhaps why the pardon power exists – for the exceptions, for the things that may seem unlawful in letters on a page but when we look at them morally, when we look at them ethically, when we look at the results, it seems these were necessary things, these were vital things.
“I think when people look at the calculations of benefit, it is clear that in the wake of 2013 the laws of our nation changed. The [US] Congress, the courts and the president all changed their policies as a result of these disclosures. At the same time there has never been any public evidence that any individual came to harm as a result.”
Is that a legal case? It is not. But pardons really are. A pardon isn’t getting a setence overturned; it is saying that the punishment far outpaced the crime, or that the morality of punishment is not proportionate to what the person did. It’s how (on the other side) the perpetrators of Iran/Contra were pardoned by George HW Bush: they were defending their country, and so why should they be punished for that? As deliciously uncomfortable as that may be for both sides, that is the essential moral argument. What was happening was bad, I exposed it, things are better: isn’t that what the law should really be about? If not, then the law is an ass, yes?
But it’s not so cut-and-dried. Yesterday, the House Intelligence Committee released a damning 36-page report about how, far from being a whistle-blower, he was a thief of national security information, a man who stole classified intelligence documents that compromised national security, and who put American lives in danger. As the report addressed to President Obama said, ““We urge you not to pardon Edward Snowden, who perpetrated the largest and most damaging public disclosure of classified information in our nation’s history.”
Er, sorry, not the report. The three-page summary. The report itself is classified, along with anything that resembles corroborating evidence of their allegations. Or really any evidence at all. It’s assertion and character assassination, full of phrases like “when in fact he washed out because of shin splints,” in reference to his Army career, which is just sort of petty. They also argue that he is “not a whistleblower”, but instead just a “disgruntled employee”, which: you can be both. In fact, I’d bet it’s a 1:1 ratio, historically.
But that’s sort of key to their “argument”, which has two component parts.
- This man is not a hero. He’s a spoiled traitor, probably a Millennial, who hates America, wasn’t very good at his job, and so was just seeking attention. He’s one of those people, a lefty good governance type. Can you really trust him?
- Trust us.
What is is boiling down to is essentially political tribalism, and that’s what the intelligence services are counting on. They are counting on a chesty sort of patriotism, the kind that is normally up in arms about the government taking away our liberties, except when it comes to “national security” and, just as important, liberal bashing. Because the ACLU is involved, and we all know what we think about them, yes?
It’s a pretty incredible feat, really. You have the same people who were outraged that “Obama was listening to my phone calls” who are still the natural anti-pardon allies. That includes Congress, which sees him as a tyrant, and now urges him to reject the man that exposed it. The Dems on the committee went right along, because the great unifier is fealty to the national security state.
And that’s what it is. 15 years after the September 11th attacks, all is security. The NSA, which was honest-to-god spying on every single American citizen, can be portrayed as the good guy in this fight, because they are going against terrorism and therefore defending our liberties. Anyone who goes against that is, by default, an enemy, even if most people are happy that he threw a wrench into these programs.
The Snowden debate is of course more than about just one man, although it is also very much about the life of a man who gave away his life for the cause of justice. But it’s about every mental alley, every deception, and every burst of cognitive dissonance that we have been living with for 15 years. We can hate the NSA and the CIA and Congress for spying on us, and countenancing that spying, but then turn on the person who exposed it. We can bemoan our loss of civil liberties until we hear that they are being defended by the ACLU, and then we turn around, face contorted into a snarl, and defend the NSA for keeping us safe. There’s no limit to the way the “War of Terror” has mutated our mental lives, our politics, and even the very ideas of our democracy. Snowden exposed that, and. along with organizations like the ACLU and some very brave and smart journalists, is forcing us to slowly deal with it. For that, I think, he’s a hero, and should not just be pardoned, but celebrated.
(Addendum: I don’t think everything should be open; I think Chelsea Manning gave up too much, and that Julian Assange is sinister, even before his recent embrace of Putin and Trump. There’s a big difference though. Diplomatic cable should be private; for diplomacy to work, they have to be. But I knew that diplomatic cables existed. This wasn’t a dramatic expose. It was secretly filming a celebrity in the shower: it isn’t an image-defying surprise they clean themselves; it’s just titillation. There was more in her leaks, of course, but there was also a lot of stuff that depended on privacy, not really secrecy. What Snowden did is to me completely different. He brought to light the inarguable certainty that information on all of us was being secretly collected. He didn’t share my web searches with the world.)