Depending on who you ask, in the American tradition of polarization, Edward Snowden is either a traitor or a hero. While working for shady government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Snowden, somehow, downloaded an unknown amount of top secret data from the world’s most secure agency and handed it over to liberal stalwart Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian. And even while hopping from country to country looking for exile, it seems like every week Snowden unveils a secret and, if not literally then in spirit, unconstitutional NSA spying program. Provided they’re all true, the sum of his disclosures seems to say the big black box is spying on the entire world wide web, all the time, foreigners and Americans alike. The secret continuation of/additions to Bush-era spying programs has notably undermined Obama’s rarely spoken mission of repairing our world image, and any damage control he attempts is quickly muted by a new leak contradicting whatever he said the following week.
Here and elsewhere I’ve largely refrained from commenting on this scandal for one reason: I already knew it was going on. I don’t want to unnecessarily add to my intelligence file; I am not spying on the government. But as a student of (primarily U.S.) history, absolutely nothing about this is surprising. Unlike the end of most wars, America never demilitarized post-WWII because of the hulking mass of evil that was the Soviet Union. Under President Truman the National Security Act of 1947 massively expanded and reorganized the military. From it the National Security Council, Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Air Force, and the Department of Defense were all born. Additionally the OSS, created explicitly for WWII, was renamed the CIA and became America’s first peacetime intelligence agency. In the following decades and wars the defense apparatus grew even more, to where we now have at least sixteen different intelligence agencies. With numbers like that, America is surely collecting intel on a hell of a lot of people.
“But what about the Constitution?” What about it? Segregation. Watergate. Iran-Contra. Gendered pay disparities. Lobbying. Drone strikes. “Police actions.” And that’s just when I thought of off the top of my head! From past to present you only have to go ankle-deep to find countless instances of the government (in)directly violating the Constitution. It’s just a piece of paper, and an outdated one at that. Simply put, if the NSA’s spy programs shock you, you haven’t been paying attention.
All that being said, the occasionally shrewd Jeffery Toobin has a piece in The New Yorker today beginning with the most ridiculous comparison I’ve read in a while:
“The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy led directly to the passage of a historic law, the Gun Control Act of 1968. Does that change your view of the assassinations? Should we be grateful for the deaths of these two men? Of course not. That’s lunatic logic. But the same reasoning is now being applied to the actions of Edward Snowden. “
Whoa. You cannot compare the cold-blooded murders of two of the best people America has ever produced to a mere information leak the government alleges will undermine national security. It’s equally as dumb a comparison as any example of Godwin’s law, which, you guessed it, Toobin provides in the next sentence. He claims Snowden’s invocation of the Nuremberg principles compares the NSA and its employees to those who murdered millions. Nobody has even mentioned that except Jeffrey Toobin. The Nuremberg principles may have been born from the evils of Nazi Germany but, because it’s a fucking principle, it has nothing inherently to do with Nazism. One might call his stretch of reasoning lunatic logic.
As a lawyer Toobin should know that the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), as a secret court with secret cases, evidence, and rulings even congress is kept partially in the dark about, kind of defeats the purpose of a court. The FISC-NSA complex essentially amounts to federal internal arbitration. And we know how fairly that works out in the public sector. If you suspect the NSA has violated your constitutional rights (they likely have), you can try to sue them in a public court but thanks to their secrecy you have no evidence of that unless the defense shows it to you, which it won’t because it will ‘damage national security.’ I want to know what Jeff is shooting himself up with these days that makes him think this is legally watertight. Beyond that he asserts policy adjustments after unfavorable FISC rulings mean they’re not entirely lawless, and then he has the gall to complain about the financial cost of (to him) unnecessary reform. I’m sorry Jeff, I hadn’t considered doing the right thing was so expensive. We probably shouldn’t ever bother with it.
The one quasi-legitimate criticism he craps Snowden’s way does raise an interesting question. What did China and Russia learn of American intelligence programs from the leaks? While there’s no evidence of it I agree it’s hard to believe either country’s government would let that pot of gold slip through their fingers without at least a peek, whether or not Snowden knew. But even if they did, and this goes for ‘the terrorists’ that may learn from published leaks too, the NSA’s programs seem to be pretty comprehensive. They’re even going after the deep web, long a haven for criminals and conspiracy theorists. Know about it all you want, there’s no way to escape. And if you find one, it won’t last long. Two things America retains global superiority on are spying and killing. Furthermore, if the Soviets stole the hydrogen bomb from us and it didn’t end the world, I think it’ll be okay if they know a bit about our spy programs.
So we’ve established the NSA’s snooping was a given and Jeffrey Toobin is a moron. Whether you support or oppose the agency’s actions, please do so reasonably. I’ve long assumed something like PRISM, XKeyscore, etc. was going on, and my life is no different as a result of being proven correct. That doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s problematic, it’s just hard to be too outraged; this is hardly the Orwellian telescreen, or the Stasi’s mind games driving you to suicide. Besides, there are numerous more institutionalised cancers eating away the nation’s cornerstones. Between Citizens United and lobbying corporations can literally buy whatever legislation or politician they want, and encourage this corruption by hiring board members out of government. That is outrageous. The leader of the free world will let good people die of preventable disease if they can’t afford or don’t qualify for health insurance. That is outrageous. For the last 50 years the executive branch has waged wars sending our friends, siblings, and children to die without the necessary oversight by way of a simple change in language. That is outrageous. The house is on fire and everyone’s upset about a fly evading the swatter. The United States is in critical need of deep, deep reforms across wide swaths of government. In the long run, nothing less will save it.