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.


  1. Jeffrey Herrmann May 26, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Just a few brief observations:
    Your conclusion that “Snowden couldn’t have done that much harm because the activities he exposed haven’t done much good” is too facile. Snowden exposed much more than the extent of collection of telephone metadata relating to US citizens. He exposed the content of communications intercepts of foreign targets who have no rights under the Fourth Amendment. (Hello, Angela?) The exposure of successful communications intercepts almost always results in their permanent loss. Moreover, the content of US government communications he disclosed very likely puts US soldiers or civilians at risk of a range of harms from a range of official and unofficial actors.
    I think it is fair to judge the credibility of Greenwald’s many purportedly factual claims in the light of the biases revealed by the quote in your post. At the recent Munk Debate in Toronto, Greenwald made similar claims to know the subjective motives, in effect, of the tens of thousands of people employed by the NSA and other US intelligence agencies. A man who thinks he is a mentalist may not be someone whose every factual claim is to be believed.
    Likewise, Snowden has made and doubled down on claims about the extent of the US government’s surveillance capabilities that are highly implausible, but most people will have neither the means nor the motivation to verify his claims. A man who views himself in Messianic terms may not be the best person to blindly trust in regard to shocking but implausible assertions.
    Snowden’s disclosures have, in addition to producing adverse effects, yielded a benefit for US citizens who were unaware of the extent of US surveillance of US citizens, but he certainly could have achieved that desirable result without the wholesale disclosure of other legitimate (in my opinion) intelligence gathering activities. Thus, Daniel Ellsberg did not reveal all the pages of the Pentagon Papers.
    And personally, I might have admired Snowden if, like other civil disobedients such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandella and Daniel Ellsbeg, he had stayed and faced prosecution, presenting to a jury of his persons the justifications for his actions. I like like my Messiahs not to be cowardly.

    • tonygreco May 27, 2014 at 9:33 am


      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, which I mostly I agree with. In particular, you’re right that Snowden’s revelations did go beyond the NSA metadata program, and some of those may well have been harmful. I think that the actual amount of harm that Snowden caused is hard to know. On the other hand, the good that he did is knowable and, to my mind, very considerable. While it is impossible to be confident, I think it likely that the good greatly outweighs the harm.

      I agree that both Snowden and Greenwald in their moral fervor seem to have taken on something of a messianic complex, which can impair judgment. Their specific claims should be viewed with skepticism, but not with dismissiveness. Greenwald, certainly, is not an irresponsible jerk. I’ve been reading him off and on for years, and while he does sometimes go a bit over the top, he’s usually sensible and almost always very incisive. My understanding is that Greenwald and Snowden didn’t simply dump all Snowden’s information out for general consumption, but that they were selective and sought to apply responsible criteria in deciding what was and what wasn’t to be made public. Of course that doesn’t mean their judgment has always been good.

      Would Snowden be more admirable if he turned himself in? I suppose, but if he did so he would risk a significant probability of very lengthy if not life imprisonment. I wouldn’t call anybody a coward just because he’s not willing to be a martyr.

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