Summary: Those paying attention to Snowden’s revelations have learned much about our government (although we’re told he told us nothing new). Those reading the government’s defenders learned much as well. Not just that Snowden’s revelations did immense damage, but also that we stand alone when resisting the government. Our best and brightest are on the other side.
An astonishingly weak defense of government surveillance: “Is Obama presiding over a national security state gone rogue?“, Michael Cohen, Guardian, 21 June 2013 — “Frankly, I don’t see evidence of huge abuse of US liberties. But I do see our foreign policy distorted by a counter-terror obsession.” Excerpts:
In that sense, we have to take the government’s word for it. And that is especially problematic when you consider the FISA court decisions authorizing this snooping are secret and the congressional intelligence committees tasked with conducting oversight tend to be toothless.
But assumptions of bad faith and violations of privacy by the US government are just that … assumptions. When President Obama says that the NSA is not violating privacy rights because it would be against the law, we can’t simply disregard such statements as self-serving.
True courtiers like Cohen insist that government officials be given the benefit of the doubt, believed no matter how many times government officials have lied to us during the past 60 years. No matter how improbable their stories. Samuel Adams or Patrick Henry would shake their heads in contempt.
Cohen also marshals logic in his defense of the government:
“Now, while one can argue that Snowden’s actions do not involve personal sacrifice, whether they are heroic is a much higher bar to cross.”
Weak logic. As if the value of the information Snowden revealed depends on such trivialities. Heroism is ultimately determined by history. Here’s a better try at logic:
This question of leakers v whistleblowers has frequently been conflated in the public reporting about the NSA leak (and many others).
But this is a crucial error. As Tara Lee, a lawyer at the law firm DLA Piper, with expertise in defense industry and national security litigation said to me there is an important distinction between leakers and whistleblowers, “One reports a crime; and one commits a crime.”
… So, like Manning, Snowden is almost certainly not a whistleblower, but rather a leaker. And that would mean that he, like Manning, is liable to prosecution for leaking classified material.
Cohen then goes on at great length about this. While an important distinction should Snowden find himself in court, it is not relevant to the public policy debate. Snowden acknowledged that his acts subject him to prosecution, and has accepted the possibility of punishment for his deeds — as shown by a quote Cohen provides:
“I’m willing to sacrifice … because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”
Cohen is a smart and knowledgable writer about geopolitical affairs, as shown by this article’s skillfully constructed smokescreen for the government. He does not mention that much of what we know about the national security state — and much of the most important information — comes from citizens revealing secret information. People like Stanley Sheinbaum, Michael Wood, Daniel Ellsberg, Mark Felt (aka Deep Throad), Philip Agee, Bradley Manning, and now Snowden. He touches on this only indirectly:
Both Manning and now Snowden have taken it upon themselves to decide what should be in the public domain; quite simply, they don’t have the right to do that. If every government employee decided actions that offended their sense of morality should be leaked, the government would never be able to keep any secrets at all and, frankly, would be unable to operate effectively.
Cohen need not fear for the government’s collapse. The day when “every government official” leaks seems likely to arrive as soon as the Rapture. The government intensely prosecutes leakers (except for senior officials). Making an example for other potential leakers, Manning was imprisoned — often under punitive conditions (called “torture” by the UN investigator) — for three years before his trial.
Cohen says that “citizens don’t have the right” to leak. But America was born through civil disobedience (e.g., the Boston Tea Party). Thoreau’s On the Duty to Civil Disobedience (1849) has inspired people around for the world for two centuries — including Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The next post will give Thoreau’s own words, advice as relevant to us as his own generation.
Although courtiers like Cohen recommend blind obedience, America’s traditions provide a range of actions to push back against the government that are beyond voting but less than revolution. Like jury nullification, peaceful protests (without government approval) — and leaking secrets to the pubic.
A reminder about a vital point
Cohen is among the best and the brightest of those of his generation writing about public policy. Like most of his peers, his loyalty clearly lies with the State — not us. Probably because he’s smart, and see the path to career success in our society as power concentrates in ever fewer hands.
This is one of the two barriers to reforming America (our disinterest and passivity is the other). Successes in the Revolution and Civil War were possible because large segments of the intelligentsia and elites were on our side. Now we are mostly alone.
For details about this grim fact see We are alone in the defense of the Republic.
About Michael Cohen
Michael A Cohen is author of Live from the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the 20th Century and How They Shaped Modern America. A regular columnist for the Guardian and Observer on US politics, he is also a fellow of the Century Foundation.
For More Information
There are sources of information better than Cohen and his ilk
Especially read this ASAP, before it becomes gated: “NSA Whistleblowers For Dummies”, Mark Ames (aka The War Nerd), NSFW:
Posts about the mainstream media:
- Only our amnesia makes reading the newspapers bearable, 30 April 2008
- “Elegy for a rubber stamp”, by Lewis Lapham, 26 August 2008
- “The Death of Deep Throat and the Crisis of Journalism”, 23 December 2008
- The media doing what it does best these days, feeding us disinformation, 18 February 2009 — About sea ice
- The media rolls over and plays dead for Obama, as it does for all new Presidents, 19 February 2009
- The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009
- The media – a broken component of America’s machinery to observe and understand the world, 2 June 2009
- We’re ignorant about the world because we rely on our media for information, 3 June 2009
- We know nothing because we read newspapers, 12 October 2009 – About mythical numbers
- Journalists, relying on anonymous government sources, attack anonymous bloggers who correct journalists’ errors, 25 July 2010
- The Raymond Davis incident shows that we’re often ignorant because we rely on the US news media. There is a solution., 18 February 2011
- An explanation of the US and Pakistan governments’ odd behavior in the Raymond Davis affair, 27 February 2011