Snowden and NSA Ironies — 25 June 2013

The case of Edward Snowden is interesting to me more for what it says about the Obama Administration than for the actual circumstances of it.

Let’s dispense with the facts of the case first.  Snowden was a contractor with a security clearance who broke his oath of confidentiality.  He took it upon himself, in a manner reminiscent of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, to decide what materials ought to remain classified and what should be released to the public.  In doing so, he broke the law.

It is therefore completely appropriate that the Obama Administration should issue an arrest warrant for him and seek to get him extradited.  Their failure to do so is something else again, to be discussed below.

As to the moral and civil rights issues involved, my position is this: the government should have the right to collect the same sort of metadata that the great search companies like Google collect by the minute, so they can subject it to the same sort of sifting and pattern recognition.  It’s passing strange to me that there is no complaint whatsoever at private companies’ being able to track our purchases, our browsing, our locations, our phone records for the purposes of pushing customized advertising to us, but when the government has access to the same sort of data for the decidedly more consequential purpose of keeping us safe from terrorism and mass killings the hue and cry from some quarters is immediate.

Granted, the fact that the government has a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion makes it a different kind of data consumer, at least potentially.  There is always the risk that governments will be corrupted by the power they have and the temptation to use it for political rather than public-welfare purposes.  Witness the abuse of the IRS’ powers directed toward Tea Party and other conservative groups.

But it should be the case, particularly in a well-run representative democracy, that government should be trusted more than a private company, which is only answerable to the demands of the bottom line and whatever disciplines the market imposes on it to pursue that bottom-line objective by ethical and legal means.

Indeed, it is a core tenet of the Obama belief system – which lies behind Obamacare and so much else in the President’s agenda – that government responds to purer motives.  The profit motive results in some people being victims; government action, by contrast, protects the weak from the predations of the profit-seekers.

It’s an idealistic view of government, when the reality is more along the lines of Madison’s Federalist comment – “the great difficulty is this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”  Governmental power exerts a gravitational pull that accretes ever more power unto itself, and it must be continually checked or it will become too big to control.  One natural consequence of Obama’s transformational presidency is that the government by deliberate intention becomes more powerful, and more wanting of control.  What we are seeing these days is that control is lacking.

This is why, instead of the general public reacting to the revelations of the government maintaining zilobytes of telephonic metadata with a yawn and a thank you, the reaction instead – interestingly, from both left and right – is that the security state is becoming a leviathan, a 1984 construct where Big Brother keeps his eye on us all.

It is in part a failure of the Obama Administration that this is an issue at all.  I believe that if the outlines of this program were publicly discussed years ago, under less fraught circumstances, the public would have given its tacit consent and Edward Snowden’s revelations would have been inconsequential – albeit still illegal.  But because of the loss of trust engendered by this administration due to Benghazi, the IRS scandals, the Justice Department sweeping of journalists’ records, and all the attendant lying, it is not only easy but natural for people to react to the NSA story with horror, exaggeration, and civil rights lawsuits.

Many observers have noted the irony of this President – who was among the foremost in condemning the anti-terror methods of his predecessor – now dealing with public condemnation of his own choices to pursue and even expand many of the same programs. But to me, the poetic justice runs deeper.

One reason the NSA metadata programs have been so critical to our continued security methods is that we have precious few other forms of intelligence.  The Obama Administration has outlawed all but the most perfunctory forms of interrogation, and because of its commitment to a pre-9-11 mindset is disposed to giving Miranda rights to terrorists such as Dzhokar Tsarnaev so we don’t get a chance to do even minimal interrogation.  And while the drone program has been successful at decimating top terror leaders and their families at minimal cost in US lives, it also means we silence potential sources of intel rather than capture and exploit them.  So the NSA program, which is now under attack, is one of the few tools we have left.

To return to Snowden, who is now in the midst of some Cook’s Tour of civil rights abusers in search of asylum, the additional irony is that one of President Obama’s early foreign policy objectives was to “restore the US standing in the world,” supposedly tarnished by the wild cowboy from Crawford, Texas and his unilateral ways.

So we had the famous “reset” with Moscow, the “shirt-sleeve” summit with China’s new premier, and all the other demonstrations of US good will.  It was almost as if the President thought that by sheer dint of his scintillating personality he could bring international rivals to sing from the US songbook.  Instead, we can’t even get Hong Kong to honor a decades-old extradition treaty, and Secretary Kerry vaguely warns of “consequences” if the Russians fail to arrest Snowden.  Those would, presumably, be the same kind of “consequences” at which Syria now trembles for having crossed the red line and used chemical weapons.  Which is to say, nothing at all.

So, instead of a non-issue, we have the nation in an uproar over civil rights invasions, one of our last remaining sources of anti-terror intelligence under attack, and the international community blithely indifferent to our demands for the return of a duplicitous contractor.

And, incidentally, what does it say about the security of our classified data that a mid-level contractor could download it to a thumb drive and sell it to the highest bidder?  This government needs some controlling, all right.

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