We’re going to learn a lot this week about surveillance technologies and the policies that support their use by government intelligence agencies and their private-sector agents. But we’re also going to find out a lot about ourselves and the impulses and biases we bring to the table in dealing with such issues.
A starting point? What is your gut reaction to Edward Snowden, the former CIA technician who apparently managed in three short months of highly compensated work for a consulting firm under contract with NSA to harvest and then leak some of the most sensitive information in the whole wide world, and is now hiding out in a luxury hotel in Hong Kong of all places, under the implicit benevolent protection of the People’s Republic of China?
To most of those with a libertarian bent, left and right, it’s a total no-brainer: Snowden is a great hero, and our overriding duty is to make sure he doesn’t become a martyr. One of Snowden’s probable role models, Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, thinks Barack Obama personally needs to be stopped from murdering Snowden:
The White House sent people with orders “to incapacitate me totally.” I was subject to a White House death squad that fortunately backed off and aborted the mission. Now we have a president, Barack Obama, who openly proclaims the right to execute, to kill, to murder any American citizen he wants if he can’t arrest them. But he’s already done it to Americans he could have arrested.
Neo-connish Republicans, and somewhat more quietly, Democrats of a non-libertarian bent, tend to view Snowden as a narcissistic fraud who insinuated himself into a position where he could do the maximum damage to his country, knowing he’d have plenty of powerful or at least noisy allies when it all hit the fan. This point of view is likely to crystallize around demands that Hong Kong extradite Snowden to the United States for prosecution.
Aside from visceral reactions to Snowden, of course, observers from every point of view are going to get a good education on both public- and private-sector intelligence-gathering, and their convergence in programs like PRISM.
What’s my own gut reaction to the hundreds of images of Edward Snowden all over the Internet and television today? Not immediately positive, I must admit. For a putative martyr, Snowden’s had a pretty cushy existence, it seems, and yeah, there’s pretty clearly a narcissism problem when someone in his 20s decides to give Barack Obama a chance to “keep his promises” before leaking what he knew about PRISM.
Snowden’s refuge is troubling to me, too, on a gut level: it’s reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht going directly from a HUAC hearing to a highly privileged existence in East Germany.
But still, I have to admit: when a friend at church yesterday suggested Obama might be about to conduct a high-profile pivot and call for the repeal or radical revision of the Patriot Act as a follow-up to his NDU speech declaring the GWOT at an end, I was very hopeful he was right.
What’s your gut reaction to Mr. Snowden?
UPDATE: TNR’s Noam Scheiber offers a persuasive (if highly preliminary) take on Snowden as being more like Aaron Swartz than Bradley Manning.