Beltway pundits love sports. Who’s up or down matters, not substance. No surprise then that no pundit mentioned Hillary Clinton’s disgusting response to Anderson Cooper’s jejune question about what to do about dear Edward Snowden, traitor or hero (no admirer of Borgesian dialectics, this Vanderbilt heir. The little guy, Clinton said, “stole very important information that has unfortunately fallen into a lot of the wrong hands,” whereupon he ran into the safe, warm arms of Vladimir Putin. Several Rahm Emmanuel types in the audience applauded. If only Snowden, she lamented, had reported the information to The Right People. It’s been established for a while that government contractors don’t qualify for whistleblower protection. Jim Webb, who mentioned the soldier who wounded him in Vietnam as his favorite enemy, had a better answer.
As Snowden has repeatedly explained, after turning over copies of the heavily encrypted files to reporters, he destroyed his own before he left Hong Kong.
He did not take the files to Russia “because it wouldn’t serve the public interest,” he told the New York Times in 2013. “There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents,” he said.
The Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday Times newspaper ran a front-page story in June asserting that Russia and China had “cracked the top-secret cache of files” that the paper, citing anonymous sources, claimed Snowden had brought with him to Moscow. But the story was thoroughly debunked and a video clip of the reporter acknowledging that “we just publish what we believe to be the position of the British government” went viral.
Boy, we sure love personalities, don’t we? Musicians, actors, politicians, even traitors (to quote Dana Perino) like Edward Snowden, who has never stopped being the story about the American surveillance state. Very well. Let’s recap what we learned from the man whom Charles Pierce calls the International Man of Luggage:
Rather than transmitting information to foreign powers, Snowden handed over his electronic stash of documents to reporters from the Guardian and the Washington Post, with the stipulation that they treat its contents sensitively and carefully. Although the leak led to some sensational stories—Michael Morell, a top C.I.A. official, called it “the most serious compromise of classified information in the history of the U.S. intelligence community”—the journalists largely adhered to Snowden’s stipulation.
The news stories brought to light many details about domestic surveillance, such as the bulk collection of phone records and the PRISM program, which enabled the N.S.A. to retrieve users’ e-mails and search histories from Internet companies such as Google and Facebook. Another story revealed that the N.S.A.’s own internal auditor had concluded that the agency had breached its own privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times a year since 2008. But despite some embarrassing details about overseas operations (such as the fact that the United States had tapped the phone calls of world leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel), the stories based on the Snowden leaks didn’t reveal much about specific U.S. intelligence operations around the world.
Even so, I wish I could agree with the Man of Luggage that after Congress’ vote last week “we are witnessing the emergence of a post-terror generation, one that rejects a worldview defined by a singular tragedy.” No. When I see “post-” affixed to a noun, I reach for my gin and tonic. Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, Rick Perry, and Barack Hussein Obama’s careers depend on a terror generation, frightened by brown-skinned heffalumps and woozles that could have done us harm under other names in 1993, 1986, and 1983.
Hours of explanation regarding how the National Security Administration spies on Americans with the collaboration of European allies. Nervous eye flickers as the Hong Kong hotel in which he’s hiding holds a fire drill. He has to plug the room phone he’d turned off (these new phones can record conversations) and call the front desk. Finally, ready to inspect Guardian columnist and reporter Glenn Greenwald’s laptop, he throws what looks like a red curtain from his grandmother’s parlor in 1976 over his head. Someone might be spying on him at that moment. From — where? The room titters with laughter.
At that moment the NSA contractor whose crisp jargon-free English betrays traces of his North Carolinian birth, becomes likable. Not that it matters. One of director Laura Poitras’ decisions when assembling Citizenfour was to exclude biographical montages, interviews with friends, relatives, and former lovers, accompanied by music — the cliches of documentary filmmaking. This isn’t Flag Wars or The Oath, Poitras’ best known previous films. The first thing out of Snowden’s mouth when Greenwald sits across from him is an insistence on depersonalizing the stories that The Guardian and the Washington Post will publish. Greenwald, a victim himself of smear campaigns and dismissals because he doesn’t hang out with Luke Russert at Peggy Noonan’s for Sunday brunch, practically claps. What the audience sees is an articulate twenty-nine-year old in a black tee on a bed explaining the extent to which a largely unaccountable state apparatus accumulates, with a bipartisan imprimatur, credit, banking, and electronic information from Americans. No NSA, State Department, or administration apparatchiks get interviewed for the sake of a phony balance. Snowden and Greenwald in a modern Hong Kong hotel, oitras invisible behind her camera, accompanied sometimes by Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill are all the film shows for a forty or fifty-minute stretch. There is never any question about Snowden revealing himself — how long he can evade detection without his story subordinating the purloined data shapes the drama. The only moment when Citizenfour succumbs to spy novel bait happens when Snowden and a human rights lawyer try to figure out how to slip him into a United Nations facility where he can claim asylum. Replacing glasses with contacts, fussing over how much mousse he spreads into his hair, smoothing his shirt, he’s like a star readying for a E! interview, albeit with a bullseye drawn on his back.
Separating my responses to what Snowden leaked from a full accounting of Poitras’ film is hopeless. Citizenfour is a political document. Readers of this blog know them. Click on the tags. It would be agitprop if Poitras belonged to a cause, but I hesitate to call an informed citizenry taking advantage of its constitutional liberties a cause. I wish she had drawn a line between Snowden’s revelations and Wikileaks. Using the fear of terrorism as an excuse to keep the United States as financial and military hegemon is the least surprising fact to emerge from Citizenfour,
Edward Snowden, whom Charles Pierce calls the International Man of Luggage, talks to The Nation‘s Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen. Too lengthy to excerpt, it covers the iPhone 6’s encryption measures (done after the tech companies learned what the National Security Agency expected them to turn over), the definition of patriotism, the mixed success of Occupy Wall Street, and how Germans have offered beds for Snowden to sleep in; but the bit below seems key. Send it to friends and relatives who on Thanksgiving will insist They Have Nothing to Hide:
We only have the rights that we protect. It doesn’t matter what we say or think we have. It’s not enough to believe in something; it matters what we actually defend. So when we think in the context of the last decade’s infringements upon personal liberty and the last year’s revelations, it’s not about surveillance. It’s about liberty. When people say, “I have nothing to hide,” what they’re saying is, “My rights don’t matter.” Because you don’t need to justify your rights as a citizen—that inverts the model of responsibility. The government must justify its intrusion into your rights. If you stop defending your rights by saying, “I don’t need them in this context” or “I can’t understand this,” they are no longer rights. You have ceded the concept of your own rights. You’ve converted them into something you get as a revocable privilege from the government, something that can be abrogated at its convenience. And that has diminished the measure of liberty within a society.
Also: the point of civil disobedience is disobedience.
A couple days ago The Guardian published the transcript of an interview with Edward Snowden. The way in which he summarizes fourteen months of revelations is itself a resource from which we’ll be quoting for years. Included is this reminder for those critics who still insist he should have followed the chain of command:
I was a private contractor as opposed to a direct employee of the National Security Agency. And that meant that what few whistleblower protections we have in the United States did not apply to me. I could have been fired and [would have] had no recourse against the retaliation. I could have been imprisoned. And everybody who works for these agencies, they’re all aware of that.
Thomas Drake, an American who exposed widespread lawlessness … [he was a senior NSA employee who raised concerns about agency programs and their impact on privacy] … rather than having those claims investigated, rather than having the wrongdoing remediated, they launched an investigation against him and … all of his co-workers.
And the sharing of sexually explicit material by twenty-year-old dudes who get off on sharing nudie pics with the full knowledge that the people on whom they’re spying will never know and their own superiors won’t care:
It’s never reported, nobody ever knows about it, because the auditing of these systems is incredibly weak. Now while people may say that it’s an innocent harm, this person doesn’t even know that their image was viewed, it represents a fundamental principle, which is that we don’t have to see individual instances of abuse. The mere seizure of that communication by itself was an abuse. The fact that your private images, records of your private lives, records of your intimate moments have been taken from your private communication stream, from the intended recipient, and given to the government without any specific authorisation, without any specific need, is itself a violation of your rights. Why is that in the government database?
“I have nothing to hide,” we’ve heard from those in both parties indifferent to the NSA revelations of Edward Snowden and published by The Guardian, Washington Post, among other newspapers. Julian Sanchez explains it slowly:
Privileged folks like Ben and I may well be right to think the laws, rules, and institutional priorities governing the intelligence community will protect us—a fortiori if we happen to be vocal advocates of that community—but the test of a just system is not how it treats the privileged. That doesn’t mean a privileged perspective is necessarily wrong, but it does mean we ought to be cautious about any inference from “this is not a problem I worry about” to “this is not a problem.”
In a democracy, of course, the effects of surveillance are not restricted to its direct targets. Spying, like censorship, affects all of us to the extent it shapes who holds power and what ideas hold sway. Had the FBI succeeded in “neutralizing” Martin Luther King Jr. earlier in his career, it would hardly have been a matter of concern solely for King and his family—that was, after all, the whole point.
Instead of a couple wonks comfortably ensconced in D.C. institutions, let’s instead ask a peaceful Pakistani-American who protests our policy of targeted killings, perhaps in collaboration with activists abroad; we might encounter far less remarkable confidence. Or, if that seems like too much effort, we can just look to the survey of writers conducted by the PEN American Center, finding significant percentages of respondents self-censoring or altering their use of the Internet and social media in the wake of revelations about the scope of government surveillance.
Daniel Drezner has a must-read account of his visit to the NSA and its efforts to function in a post-Snowden environment. Unique in that it gets oversight from three branches of government, the NSA has nevertheless functioned as if its goals are resistant to challenge:
Multiple officials compared the compliance obligations to a U.S. financial firm post-Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank. While one official acknowledged, “this agency has made mistakes,” they also pointed out that they’ve responded robustly. They have boosted the number of compliance officers to more than 300. Furthermore, knowledge of the FISA reprimands was only made public because the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, declassified the court rulings in the interest of transparency. Furthermore, because the NSA is obligated to report even picayune or mistaken cases of noncompliance, they come off looking worse than they actually are. “The raw numbers look terrible,” one official acknowledged, but stressed that the percentage of non-compliance instances is very small.
These points have some validity — but not total validity. For example, the NSA can point to their triple-branched oversight as much as they like, but as Ryan Lizza and others have documented, that doesn’t mean that the oversight is terribly effective. Furthermore, true or not, comparing a government organization to, say, Goldman Sachs in terms of onerous regulation might not resonate terribly well with the American public.
In retrospect the Church-Pike-era reforms like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court put a Band-Aid on a system that had metastasize beyond the reach of oversight:
The NSA’s biggest strategic communications problem, however, is that they’ve been so walled off from the American body politic that they have no idea when they’re saying things that sound tone-deaf. Like expats returning from a long overseas tour, NSA staffers don’t quite comprehend how much perceptions of the agency have changed.
How depressing: Edward Snowden thought he had more speech protection in Hong Kong than in his own country. But the city has an unusual relationship with the rest of China:
The local government’s extradition treaty with the U.S. allows either side to refuse in matters of political offense, but Hong Kong coöperates closely with American law enforcement, and local lawyers could not recall a case when extradition was blocked for political reasons. The Beijing government has veto power when “defense, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy” is on the line, and while it might prefer to avoid openly meddling in a case that would inflame Hong Kong’s local sensibilities, it can make its preferences felt, and it has little incentive to protect Snowden from his own government.
Hong Kong, of course, is one of China’s two “special administrative regions,” (the other is Macau)—former colonies that returned to Chinese control in the nineteen-nineties with the assurance that Beijing would handle foreign and intelligence affairs but would not seek full political control for a period of fifty years. Fundamentally, Hong Kong remains an oasis of freedom compared to the mainland, although there is an ongoing debate about how much interference has moved in around the edges.