Why Edward Snowden Is a Hero
Is Edward Snowden, the twenty-nine-year-old N.S.A. whistle-blower who was last said to be hiding in Hong Kong awaiting his fate, a hero or a traitor? He is a hero. In revealing the colossal scale of the U.S. government’s eavesdropping on Americans and other people around the world, he has performed a great public service that more than outweighs any breach of trust he may have committed. Like Daniel Ellsberg, the former Defense Department official who released the Pentagon Papers, and Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear technician who revealed the existence of Israel’s weapons program, before him, Snowden has brought to light important information that deserved to be in the public domain, while doing no lasting harm to the national security of his country.
Doubtless, many people inside the U.S. power structure—President Obama included—and some of its apologists in the media will see things differently. When Snowden told the Guardian that “nothing good” was going to happen to him, he was almost certainly right. In fleeing to Hong Kong, he may have overlooked the existence of its extradition pact with the United States, which the U.S. authorities will most certainly seek to invoke. The National Security Agency has already referred the case to the Justice Department, and James Clapper, Obama’s director of National Intelligence, has said that Snowden’s leaks have done “huge, grave damage” to “our intelligence capabilities.”
Before accepting such claims at face value, let’s remind ourselves of what the leaks so far have not contained. They didn’t reveal anything about the algorithms that the N.S.A. uses, the groups or individuals that the agency targets, or the identities of U.S. agents. They didn’t contain the contents of any U.S. military plans, or of any conversations between U.S. or foreign officials. As Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who broke the story, pointed out on “Morning Joe” today, this wasn’t a WikiLeaks-style data dump. “[Snowden] spent months meticulously studying every document,” Greenwald said. “He didn’t just upload them to the Internet.”
So, what did the leaks tell us? First, they confirmed that the U.S. government, without obtaining any court warrants, routinely collects the phone logs of tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of Americans, who have no links to terrorism whatsoever. If the publicity prompts Congress to prevent phone companies such as Verizon and A.T. & T. from acting as information-gathering subsidiaries of the spying agencies, it won’t hamper legitimate domestic-surveillance operations—the N.S.A. can always go to court to obtain a wiretap or search warrant—and it will be a very good thing for the country.
The second revelation in the leaks was that the N.S.A., in targeting foreign suspects, has the capacity to access vast amounts of user data from U.S.-based Internet companies such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Skype. Exactly how this is done remains a bit murky. But it’s clear that, in the process of monitoring the communications of overseas militants and officials and the people who communicate with them, the N.S.A. sweeps up a great deal of online data about Americans, and keeps it locked away—seemingly forever.
Conceivably, the fact that Uncle Sam is watching their Facebook and Google accounts could come as news to some dimwit would-be jihadis in foreign locales, prompting them to communicate in ways that are harder for the N.S.A. to track. But it will hardly surprise the organized terrorist groups, which already go to great lengths to avoid being monitored. Not for nothing did Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad go without a phone or Internet connection.
Another Snowden leak, which Greenwald and the Guardian published over the weekend, was a set of documents concerning another secret N.S.A. tracking program with an Orwellian name: “Boundless Informant.” Apparently designed to keep Snowden’s former bosses abreast of what sorts of data it was collecting around the world, the program unveiled the vast reach of the N.S.A.’s activities. In March, 2013, alone, the Guardian reported, the N.S.A. collected ninety-seven billion pieces of information from computer networks worldwide, and three billion of those pieces came from U.S.-based networks.
It’s hardly surprising that the main targets for the N.S.A.’s data collection were Iran (fourteen billion pieces in that period) and Pakistan (more than thirteen billion), but countries such as Jordan, India, and Egypt, American allies all, may be a bit surprised to find themselves so high on the list. “We hack everyone everywhere,” Snowden told the Guardian. “We like to make a distinction between us and the others. But we are in almost every country in the world. We are not at war with these countries.”
For most Americans, the main concern will be domestic spying, and the chronic lack of oversight that Snowden’s leaks have highlighted. In the years since 9/11, the spying agencies have been given great leeway to expand their activities, with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, which deals with legal requests from the agencies, and the congressional intelligence committees, which nominally oversees all of their activities, all too often acting as rubber stamps rather than proper watchdogs.
Partly, that was due to lack of gumption and an eagerness to look tough on issues of counterterrorism. But it also reflected a lack of information. Just a couple of months ago, at a Senate hearing, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, one of the few legislators to sound any misgivings over the activities of the intelligence agencies, asked Clapper, “Does the N.S.A. collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” To which Clapper replied: “No, sir.” (He added, “Not wittingly.”) At another hearing, General Keith Alexander, the director of the N.S.A., denied fourteen times that the agency had the technical capability to intercept e-mails and other online communications in the United States.
Thanks to Snowden, and what he told the Guardian and the Washington Post, we now have cause to doubt the truth of this testimony. In Snowden’s words: “The N.S.A. has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.”
Were Clapper and Alexander deliberately lying? If so, perhaps Snowden should be extradited to the United States and dragged into court—but only as part of a proceeding in which the two spymasters face charges of misleading Congress. I suppose you could make the argument that he is a naïve young man who didn’t fully understand the dangerous nature of the world in which we live. You could question his motives, and call him a publicity seeker, or an idiot. (Fleeing to Hong Kong wasn’t very smart.) But he doesn’t sound like an airhead; he sounds like that most awkward and infuriating of creatures—a man of conscience. “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things,” he told Greenwald. “I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”
So what is Snowden’s real crime? Like Ellsberg, Vanunu, and Bradley Manning before him, he uncovered questionable activities that those in power would rather have kept secret. That’s the valuable role that whistle-blowers play in a free society, and it’s one that, in each individual case, should be weighed against the breach of trust they commit, and the potential harm their revelations can cause. In some instances, conceivably, the interests of the state should prevail. Here, though, the scales are clearly tipped in Snowden’s favor.
I’ll leave the last word to Ellsberg, who, for revealing to the world that that Pentagon knew early on that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, was described in some quarters as a communist and a traitor: “Snowden did what he did because he recognised the NSA’s surveillance programs for what they are: dangerous, unconstitutional activity. This wholesale invasion of Americans’ and foreign citizens’ privacy does not contribute to our security; it puts in danger the very liberties we’re trying to protect.”
Photograph by Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty.