There are many important issues in history—or even everyday life—that do not resolve themselves into (so to speak) “easy round numbers,” but involve “messy arithmetical calculations.” So it is with Snowden: Any way you take him, the calculations to be done are messy indeed.
Let’s look at him, first, from a positive standpoint. What has he done that we ought to be thankful for? Clearly it’s revealing the inner workings of the NSA’s massive, indeed historically unprecedented, ability to monitor our calls, our emails, and our Internet activity—and to millions of Americans, and over many years, the NSA has been doing exactly that. And not just to us Americans, either, but to nations around the globe, whether friend, neutral, or foe. Snowden has also, as if to try to balance things out a bit, revealed that many European nations are themselves actively engaged in spying and data collection even as they remonstrated with the Obama administration over our nation’s spying proclivities and habits.
Spying is a universal activity; but it’s the depth and breadth of our capabilities that at first shocked, then angered, and then, upon sober reflection, frightened those whom Snowden revealed that we’ve spied on, with the rest of the world left to wonder if, and when, we will spy on them as well.
We have not only the world’s most advanced weaponry, ships, and planes, but clearly the most advanced—and audaciously run—intelligence gathering force on the planet. For many nations it’s clearly a case of “data envy”: if they had had our capability, they would have done exactly what we have been doing. But notwithstanding this, Snowden is largely right in showing the world that we have overstepped our bounds by a long country mile; and presumably legislation, already written up, corralling the intelligence community, will be passed soon. History shows that honoring a citizen’s rights is among the rarest of historical phenomena. Once those rights are curtailed, it’s difficult indeed to get them restored. So, on this side of the equation then, thumbs up for Snowden. We all owe him a deep debt of gratitude. Now for those messy arithmetical calculations I mentioned.
What has Snowden done that one can’t accept or approve of? First, Snowden lied on his application in order to get a job with the NSA so he himself could spy and eavesdrop and monitor and engage in data collection—against the NSA, CIA, et. al.: precisely the things he complains that the NSA has done, he did. Only he went one step further: He also stole top-secret documents which have nothing to do with NSA’s spying, many of which are of the highest strategic importance. On what grounds could Snowden possibly justify that? Moreover, for shelter he first went to one of our adversaries—and one of the world’s worst countries for human rights violations, then ended up in another country that also massively fails to honor human rights—this from someone supposedly concerned about the NSA’s violation of the rights of others. For Snowden, the ends evidently sanction any means (a pernicious doctrine if ever there was one);
and he talks out of both sides of his mouth, being pro-human rights yet cozying up to countries whose human rights records are wretched at best.
Second, he could have taken a few key documents and then gone to the Senate intelligence oversight committee, as a whistle-blower. That way, the monitoring of terrorists, at home and abroad, would not have been compromised, as it has been by his revelations. And if nothing had been done by the committee, he could then have gone public.
I get the impression that his ego played no small part in all this—that he thought of himself as being half James Bond and half Jason Bourne, with a dash of Daniel Ellsberg or Noam Chomsky thrown in. But this is no movie, and the stakes are high indeed—and very dangerous. Moreover, Ellsberg didn’t steal top-secret documents and then abscond to China or Russia like Snowden did. Ellsberg didn’t betray his country; releasing the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam cannot possibly be compared to stealing top secret documents that could seriously compromise our security.
So, for me the negatives win out. He betrayed his country unnecessarily, is hypocritical, and possesses an ego of dangerous dimensions. Moreover, if we allow this treachery to go unpunished, it would set a precedent that would cripple our armed forces in the future. No, patriots stand up and are counted; pariah slink stealthily away.
Len Sive Jr.