Reflections on Snowden

By William Dowell,
June 2013
(This article originally appeared in
The Essential Edge)

Ed Snowden, whistle blower or symptom of a deeper malaise?


In a wierd way Edward Snowden's current dilemma recalls an exchange between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson, shocked at seeing Thoreau in jail and behind bars for yet another episode of civil disobedience, exclaimed: "Henry, what are you doing in there?"  Thoreau replied: "What are you doing out there."

In this day and age, it is not an easy question to answer.  It is pretty obvious once anyone looks at the video interview with Ed Snowden that he is neither an egotist nor a traitor, and contrary to much of the sound and fury emanating from Washington, he is clearly extremely bright. That said, he may have miscalculated the consequences of his actions, which seem to have taken him in unexpected directions. If his real goal was to spark a debate, he has succeeded in starting one although not necessarily an informed one.  

Both Snowden and to a lesser extent, Bradley Manning, underscore a basic problem with clandestine intelligence operations that work outside the law, or at least outside the basic concepts that we use to define human decency. Government agencies do not like to hire sociopaths or mafia thugs. They are too hard to control. Instead, the ideal candidates sought for these positions are highly patriotic and they tend to be extremely ethical. The problem arises when these individuals are asked to do things that by most accepted standards are highly unethical.

Unless the candidate is a sociopath, the result from the conflict that results is inevitably moral corrosion. Eventually, the individual's integrity, sense of personal identity disintegrates. That is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the high number of suicides now taking place in the US Army. The legal definition of insanity is an inability to distinguish between right and wrong, yet that is exactly what we demand from these people.

Suicide is an extreme reaction that derives from a sense of the individual's inability to change the reality of the social system he feels forced to operate in.

Not everyone chooses that route. The individual subjected to this kind of pressure does after all have a choice. That choice is either to convince himself that the deceit he is engaging in is justified by the greater good that is being served, or to decide to make a clean break and through separation recapture what is left of his identity, and his membership in society. The critical question is what is the greater good and who is it serving. It is the question that the TV series "24" and its dark hero, special agent Jack Bauer, raised repeatedly. I actually liked the character of Jack Bauer, but not all situations are as clear cut as those portrayed in the series, and not everyone goes the way of a Jack Bauer. The bottom line is that a true patriot may support the larger idea of government, but not necessarily feel the need to obey a chain of command that seems to be performing criminal acts in the government's name. Since the Bush-Cheney administration, it is pretty clear that the US claim to a moral highground has slipped considerably. That seems to be Snowden's argument.   

Snowden thinks that he sees a real danger. He is not alone. Journalists such as Mark Mazzetti and Sean Harris, point out in "The Way of the Knife" and the "Watchers," is that the latest technology is placing enormous power in the hands of a very few people, who are able to operate secretly, shielded from the oversight carefully developed over 200 years of US government experience. These people are not above breaking the law, or treating allies badly. There is little honor in contemporary global politics. The question is where do you position yourself in the chaotically shifting global landscape. No one has provided a clear answer. 

 The NSA's latest effort looks very much like a continuation of John Poindexter's Total Information Awareness program. Poindexter received a felony conviction for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, and subsequently received a presidential pardon, largely because the illegal operation had been the president's idea to begin with.  

Congress eventually rejected the TIA plan, but as Sean Harris points out in the "Watchers." The NSA simply resurrected it under a black budget that effectively shielded it from Congress.

The July issue of WIRED Magazine offers an excellent wrap-up of US cyber warfare, by James Bamford. the lead character is General Alexander, a favorite of Donald Rumsfeld, whose control over information may be even more powerful that that of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover, whose influence derived from the files that he kept on the key players in Washington.

  No one wants to see terrorists blowing up cafes, but an even greater danger is the corrosion that results from the notion that a threat that is largely in our imaginations justifies violating the rule of law, and more specifically, the essential guarantees embedded in the Constitution. What is at stake is the integrity of the nation. 

A few years ago I attended a breakfast with Mike Wallace and Iran's former president Khatami who was asked what he considered to be Iran's greatest problem. Khatami answered that it was the fact that in Iran no one obeyed the law. "If you do not have respect for the law," he said, "it is impossible to organize anything." The unspoken corollary to that is the realization that If the government does not respect the law, its citizens will very likely not respect it either. In that case, social cohesion begins to disintegrate.

  It is an axiom that terrorism, by itself, can never accomplish a direct victory in military terms.  The true force of terrorism derives from the damage that the target does to itself, usually from fear, panic and overreaction.  In a sense, Osama bin Laden's secret weapon was George Bush.  9/11 effectively caught Bush and his security adviser at the time, Condoleeza Rice, by surprise.  That surprised derived not from a lack of clues or intelligence, but more from a failure of the administration to listen or to read the signs of what was about to happen. Having been caught napping, the administration's political strategy depended on launching an unessential, but extremely costly, war and  inflaming paranoia about vulnerability to an enemy whose size and power existed primarily in our own imagination. The target here was not Al Qaeda, it was the American public, whose confidence needed to be recaptured at any cost. Going for revenge and "taking the gloves off" in a moment of national panic and anger, seemed to be the way to go.  In the process, US federal law and the Constitution itself were effectively trashed. Once that precedent was set, the door was opened to future deviations. 

Bamford points out in his article that Alexander, who rose to control US signals intelligence under Rumsfeld, began illegally wiretapping Americans after 9/11.  The phone companies that allowed him to do so were retroactively pardoned. At the same time, the president authorized extralegal detentions, torture and finally, assassination.  In the early years after 9/11, lawyers from the US Army's Judge Advocate General's corps went to the American Bar Association to warn them about what was happening.  The warnings were lost in a tidal wave of patriotic propaganda.  The FBI reported that patently illegal torture was being conducted by government-hired private contractors in Guantanamo who were passing themselves off as FBI agents. The FBI wasn't particularly concerned about the victims, but it was concerned about protecting itself against future prosecution. It realized that the practice was in violation of US federal law, no matter what you called it, and moreover it made any resort to justice nearly impossible.  It became impossible to have trials of detainees without exposing the administration's patently illegal behavior, even if at the time, the ends seemed to justify the means..

     In seeking to bypass legal restraints and the justice system, the Bush-Cheney administration left us with is an executive branch that is increasingly exempt from the checks and balances that our founding fathers had put in place to keep the system from going off the rails.

 In "The Way of the Knife," Mark Mazzetti points out that Bush turned the CIA into what amounted to a private army, operating under the president's authority without much that could pass as effective oversight. As the CIA shifted its focus to killing rather than collecting information, the government became increasingly blinded to the reality of the situation outside the US.  Once set in motion, the momentum of the changes put in place continued into the next administration. As Mazzetti points out, the extralegal killing has continued under Obama, only now it is done by remote control with drones.  Mazzetti quotes Harold Koh, the former dean of the Yale Law School, who became one of Obama's senior legal advisors, as giving a speech to the American Bar Association, in which he says basically that his job at the White House was to review profiles of suspects and decide which ones were going to die in drone attacks. Koh said that ordering the deaths of so many young men eventually took an emotional toll on him. He nevertheless did it anyway. That meant that the system had managed to override the better judgment of one of the country's best legal minds. Is the world better off without terrorist suspects?  It probably is, but the real question is whether their termination with prejudice is worth the corrosive effect on ourselves, what we stand for, and who we are. 

While one can blame figure like Dick Cheney and his determination to explore "the Dark Side,"  President Obama has not shown signs that he is ready to change course.  The White House has been, if anything, notably oblique when it comes to explaining what it is really trying to do.  The Prism-NSA imbroglio is a prime example. First, it contended that the NSA program was a meta survey that does not really invade the public's privacy.  Then, it stated that the program was essential to tracking down terrorists, and that Snowden endangered American security by letting the public know about it. If the program does not have an impact on the public, how can it be effective against a professional bad guy?  Anyone who has watched "The Wire" or even "Vegas" knows that no self respecting dope dealer, mob boss or professional evil-doer is likely to use the telephone without expecting the call to be intercepted. That's what "burners" are for.  In the Middle East everyone, the villains most of all, know that the GPS nature of cell phones are used to locate suspects for elimination. So what is the NSA really doing? Public uproar over attempts by Google, Facebook and Real Audio to track metadata have made everyone justifiably nervous. Why would they not be nervous at having an opaque government agency having secret access to the same kind of information? What are the guarantees that that information will not be used by unknown groups for political purposes or personal gain?

There is another question here: how much does all this surveillance cost? What are we really getting from it? Why are we spending billions to protect ourselves against an imagined enemy, while we tell families with small children that we no longer have enough money to guarantee that they get fed or have health care? What are the priorities here? 

The handling of the Snowden affair is not only reactive, it does not seem to have been thought through.  When Snowden went to Hong Kong, it was obvious that he was beyond easy reach, so why give the case so much publicity if the probable outcome was likely to be government humiliation?  The campaign to make certain that no country could give Snowden political asylum had the effect of driving him into the hands of the Russians and the KGB, now known as the FSB. Any thinking person should have been able to see that one coming. It looks as though no one was thinking. If the Russians were willing to let him go, it probably meant that he had nothing worth keeping.  One could argue that an example needed to be made to discourage other leakers, but the publicity generated by the White House and Congress' reaction is likely to be a powerful incentive for future leakers willing to martyr themselves in order to be heard.

 The most intelligent thing that Obama has said in this mess was the offhand remark that he was not going to scramble a bunch of F16s just to get some 29-year old hacker. Especially when he is in the transit lounge of Moscow's international airport.  

The inevitable fallout from this affair seems to be new questions about the perspicacity of the people entrusted with American security. The best tack at this point would be to arrange asylum for Snowden in a neutral, out of the way, place like Iceland, which has already shown an idealistic sympathy to the Wikileaks crowd. 

That said, it is difficult not to see the literary parallel, in Joseph Heller's Catch-22.  The moment of recognition in the novel, the incident that suddenly makes Yossarian aware, is referred to initially by a reference to François Villon's poem:  "Où sont les neiges d'antan?--Where are the snows of yesteryear?" 
 Yossarian's clarity comes after he tries to help one of his bomber's wounded door gunners. He turns the boy over, takes off his flak jacket and sees that the boy's stomach is split open. Yossarian can identify everything that the boy ate for lunch. Half digested tomatoes and the like. In that instant, Yossarian realizes that our physical bodies are simply machines to reprocess undigested food. It is not material existence that counts; it is the spirit, formerly known as the soul, and currently referred to as identity and integrity. The dead door gunner's name is Snowden, and Yossarian recites over and over, "Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear..." 

    The bottom line today is that we may not know who Ed Snowden really is, or what his true motives are, but his contention that the public needs to be alerted and that we need to begin a national dialogue on where we really want to go, is hard to argue with.   Democracy depends on an informed public, and in the end, it depends on the public informing itself.