Wednesday, December 25, 2013

In Praise of Snowden

If Santa Claus were real, it is tempting to think he would be an agent for the N.S.A. He does, after all, "see you when you're sleeping/He knows when you're awake..." In fact, this is the premise of a satirical web-video produced by the ACLU.

If there was a "story of the year" in 2013, it was Edward Snowden's frightening revelations of the National Security Agency's vast surveillance of nearly every phone call, email and text message of American citizens. But instead of praising Snowden and his courageous leaks, the 30-year-old former N.S.A. contractor has been maliciously attacked by the corporate press and the power elite. They know he poses a threat to them.

Snowden, like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and other valiant whistleblowers before him, continues this country's rich tradition of Americans taking great professional and personal risks--including jail time--for the greater good.

These whistleblowers personify Henry David Thoreau's call-to-conscience dictum, as expressed in his 1849 essay, Civil Disobedience, that "Under a government that imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is... a prison."

Claiming that "law never made men a whit more just," Thoreau appealed to all citizens' moral sense of justice. "Unjust laws exist," he wrote. "Shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?"

Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse... If it [an unjust law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. (Italics his.)

Thoreau famously went to jail for refusing to pay his income taxes in protest of the Mexican-American War. According to legend, when his friend and transcendentalist mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson came to bail him out he asked Thoreau, reproachfully, "Henry, what are you doing in there?" Thoreau answered, "The question, Waldo, is what are you doing out there?"

Indeed, Snowden, far more than Barack Obama, deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. Snowden has given us confirmation of what many have long suspected: Americans, in the 21st century, are the most spied upon people in the history of civilization.

The president's self-appointed advisory panel issued 46 recommendations for de-escalating the N.S.A.'s spying program last week. In particular, the panel urged the establishment of a FISA-style court which the president would need to obtain authority from before wiretapping any American phone calls.

While the panel offered some much-needed oversight to the N.S.A.'s so-called "PRISM" program, it remains to be seen how many, if any, of its recommendations Obama will implement. The New York Times, in an editorial Saturday ("Mr. Obama's Disappointing Response," 12/21/2013), took the president to task for his inaction on the matter, claiming embracing the recommendations was "really [the] only...course to take on surveillance policy..." Calling the N.S.A.'s widespread data collection on Americans' phone and email conversations a "clear violation of the Constitution," the Times' editors write:

He [President Obama] kept returning to the idea that he might be willing to do more, but only to reassure the public "in light of the disclosures that have taken place." In other words, he never intended to make the changes that his panel... have advocated to correct the flaws in the government's surveillance policy had they not been revealed by Edward Snowden's leaks. And that is why any actions that Mr. Obama may announce next month would certainly not be adequate.

The fact is, Snowden's actions have had a far greater impact on all of our lives than any innocuous comments Pope Francis has made. Web pundit, Dennis Trainor, Jr. (aka Davis Fleetwood) emphasizes this fact in a recent piece for his video-blog series AcronymTV  ("Because you stand for something. Don't you...?"). "Adults are now confronted with a reality that cannot be dismissed as conspiracy theory paranoia," says Trainor. "The N.S.A., for all intents and purposes, sees us when we sleep and knows when we're awake."

Yet, even among progressives, there remains division over the value of Snowden's leaks. One popular liberal talking-point is to criticize the manner in which Snowden leaked his information. Maine Senator Angus King and New Yorker writer, Jeffrey Toobin are proponents of this argument. Both believe Snowden should have utilized the "traditional channels" for his leaks--which I assume means, Congress and the federal government. But this suggestion is absurd. Congress is well aware of the PRISM program. Even if Snowden had initially taken his revelations to members of the House or Senate do King and Toobin honestly believe they would have acted on it?

As Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who broke Snowden's story, pointed out this summer on Democracy Now! (06/24/13), had Snowden gone through the traditional whistleblower channels he "would have ended up having to go to the very same members of Congress who think that not only are these programs good, but that they ought to remain secret."

King, when asked by The Takeaway back in June whether he considers Snowden a "hero" or "traitor"--in accordance with the mainstream press' typically binary view of the world--the Independent senator replied, "...I'm moving more and more toward the 'treason' end of the scale." This from a man the Portland Phoenix praised during the 2012 election as a "serious thinker with a strong bent for... well considered understanding" ("The King Impression," 10/31/2012).

Incidentally, this tactic of quibbling over tactics or procedure is a typical liberal cop-out. It allows liberal politicians to vote against issues or policies they should, theoretically, support, claiming they take issue with the "procedure." (The Democratic majority on the Portland City Council invokes this stance all the time.)

The importance of Snowden's leaks cannot be understated. It is important to keep in mind that we as citizens have a legitimate right to be informed of these crimes--crimes which are being perpetrated against us. This is not a "left," vs. "right" issue. It affects us all, regardless of our political persuasion. And while it is popular among individuals on both the right and left to cynically shrug their shoulders and claim they personally have nothing to be worried about--that they are not "doing anything wrong"--such an apathetic attitude misses the point. When the government is essentially watching everything you do, monitoring everyone you contact, it is the government that determines what behavior is acceptable.

Think you have "nothing to hide"? The security state will be the judge of that.

Given the blurry, selectively applied label of "terrorist" in post-9/11 America, it is nothing of a stretch for the government to determine the actions of a peace activist, or a member of Occupy Wall Street as "terrorism." (Why, for instance, were the Sandy Hook Elementary and Aurora, Colorado movie-theater shootings not considered acts of terrorism, but this year's Boston Marathon bombing was?)

To that end, we need more Americans like Edward Snowden. His is the truest form of patriotism.

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