It’s been about seven months since you first heard Edward Snowden’s name. And what a name it is; “Edward Snowden” sounds like the name of a nefarious character from a James Bond movie. Naturally, Snowden was at the center of a spying-based scandal. As you know by now, he’s the former NSA employee who leaked the details of its massive surveillance programs to the public, by way of Glenn Greenwald, who was then a journalist for the Guardian. In the half-year since, nearly as much attention has been paid to Snowden as the NSA, and that’s a problem.
You know why it’s become about Snowden. It’s not, as so many deranged commenters would have you think, because Snowden’s some sort of fame-seeking attention whore. The NSA scandal has become the Snowden story because Snowden is easier to tackle. While some brave souls have ventured to make public their opinions on the complicated spectrum between security and privacy in the 21st century, many more—and particularly those who’d like to draw attention away from the growing security state—have weighed in on “Edward Snowden: hero or traitor?” Representative Peter King (R-NY) says traitor. No wait, not just traitor, terrorist. When Peter King labels someone a terrorist, it carries with it the subtext of “if only we had surveilled him more…” Never mind the NSA, they say, the villain here is Snowden!
It’s a testament to the success of King and his ilk that you’re much more likely to know Snowden’s name than say, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, or Keith Alexander, head of the NSA.
I can live with that, though I won’t be happy. Politicians like King win their re-elections in part by ginning up patriotism and saying “terrorism isn’t gonna happen on my watch.” It helps that their major claim, the notion that the NSA’s programs have stopped terrorism, is mostly impossible to prove or disprove without knowledge of classified information. But if politicians want to make this about Snowden because they struggle to defend the NSA on its own merits, that’s politics. Stupid, silly, politics.
I have a problem when journalists, people who ostensibly share a profession with Glenn Greenwald, go out of their way to criticize Snowden’s tactics. Ruth Marcus, who writes for the Washington Post, described Snowden as “insufferable” before downplaying the information he provided. David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times and an expert on being insufferable, began his Snowden piece with the fact that Snowden struggled to obtain a high school diploma. He went on to make the claims that Snowden—Snowden!—violated our privacy, and that by leaking this information, Snowden made our government less transparent.
Aren’t journalists and whistleblowers supposed to be on the same side here? Without government employees telling reporters things they aren’t really supposed to know, journalism would be in more trouble than it already is. Marcus’ paper once published the Pentagon Papers, after Daniel Ellsberg leaked them to the Times, when the government considered that a security threat. More recently Brooks’ paper published Iraq and Afghanistan war logs given to Wikileaks by Chelsea Manning. Both Ellsberg and Manning were tried; Manning was convicted. Snowden has decided that he’d rather live in Russia than be imprisoned in America. This invites claims of cowardice and countless quips about Russia’s surveillance state, but so be it.
The New York Times recently published an editorial calling for Edward Snowden to be granted clemency. That’s a minor victory for Snowden, but a major victory for journalism.
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