A combination of ambivalence and uncertainty has kept me up till now from posting on the Snowden/NSA affair. I was prompted to give some new thought to the matter by the latest issue of The Nation, whose cover story/lead editorial reports on a Truthtelling award to Snowden and his collaborator, filmmaker Laura Poitras. The awardees made their acceptance remarks via a video hookup to a National Press Club auditorium in Washington.
Rapidly advancing communications technologies are opening up formidable possibilities for the abuse of state power. Whatever you think of what Snowden has done, you can’t reasonably deny that he has made a huge contribution to our consciousness of those possibilities. On the other hand, I don’t doubt that terrorism remains a real and scary threat. Al Qaeda is less potent than it was in 2001, but there are still maybe as many as a couple of thousand people around the world who have dedicated their lives full-time to the objective of killing large numbers of Westerners, preferably Americans. As a New Yorker, I’m a prime target. In the face of that harsh reality, I can’t simply dismiss the proposition that some curtailment of our rights to privacy might be justified in the interest of security.
There is plenty of history from the 1950s, 60s and 70s that should make us suspicious of governmental surveillance of private citizens. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI actively monitored and sought to suppress political dissent. I haven’t seen any reason to believe that surveillance by the NSA or other government agencies in recent years has been driven by similarly nefarious motives. I’ve long admired Glen Greenwald’s commentaries, but I can’t take seriously his claim that
The objective of the NSA and the U.S. government is nothing less than destroying all remnants of privacy. They want to make sure that every single time human beings interact with one another, things that we say to one another, things we do with one another, places we go, the behavior in which we engage, that they know about it.
I don’t believe that existing official infringements on privacy have been designed with the intent that Greenwald ascribes to them. But that doesn’t mean we have nothing to worry about. Power unchecked tends to be abused, and it is clear that the checks on the power of the NSA have been feeble.
Like Greenwald, Snowden has made some assertions that seem overblown if not simply false. Still, his remarks at his awards ceremony have strengthened my impression that the guy’s motivations are mainly admirable. Every indication is that he is entirely sincere–indeed, passionate–in his belief that he has struck a blow in defense of fundamental human rights. I think you have to be badly biased against him not to recognize that he has performed an act of tremendous sacrifice and courage. He left a lucrative job and risked capture and incarceration for the rest of his life. Certainly, he has given up the possibility, for a very long time to come, of leading anything resembling a normal life.
Of course, the nobility of Snowden’s motivations doesn’t mean that his actions were justified. While he has undoubtedly rendered a major public service, there is another side to the ledger: have Snowden’s revelations in any way helped aspiring terrorists? I think they probably have, to some extent. According to Reuters columnist Jack Shafer, “…without a doubt, [Snowden’s] leaks have taught terrorist organizations new techniques of surveillance avoidance.” But Shafer points to the findings of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board set up by Congress and appointed by the president. After an intensive review of seven years of NSA activities, the Board in its January 23, 2014 report concluded,
We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation. Moreover we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.
For me, this is pretty close to dispositive. Snowden couldn’t have done that much harm because the activities he exposed haven’t done much good. So I agree with Shafer: “…Yes, Snowden gave the terrorists something, but he gave much, much more to the hundreds of millions of Americans whose data was being collected and stored without their consent.”
More important than the question of Snowden’s personal culpability/nobility is the question of what is to be done. Given the undeniable need to combat terrorism, how do we determine just what if any limitations on our privacy rights are acceptable? An undoubtedly important step has been taken with the introduction in the current Congress of the USA Freedom Act. Among other reforms, the Act would end the bulk collection of Americans’ metadata. Exceptionally, it enjoys bipartisan support. (Some Republicans will undoubtedly support it for bad reasons–they’ll do anything to hit at Obama–but so what?) I don’t know whether passage of the Act would accomplish all that needs to be done, but thanks in very large part to Snowden, Poitras and Greenwald, the necessary debate has begun.