Benumbed as we are about the extent of the National Security Agency’s systematic spying on the American people, I thought nothing could surprise me anymore. I was wrong. The news that the NSA is intercepting newly-ordered computers en route to their purchasers and installing them with back doors really takes the cake: it conjures the kind of nightmare world a writer of dystopian fiction might imagine. I don’t even want to think about the possible scope of such a program, or its implications for the future. But I must: we all must.
In a rational world, there would be no question about the moral and legal status of the man responsible for exposing this treason to the Constitution: he would be hailed as a hero by every sector of society, from the political class to the working class, and given the Congressional Medal of Honor. In our sorry, sinful world, however, Edward Snowden is on the lam, charged with two counts of violating the WWI-era Espionage Act and one count of stealing "government property." Facing at least thirty years in prison, probably much more, he has been forced to seek asylum in Russia, of all places: condemned, as the New York Times put it in an editorial calling for leniency in his case, to “a life of looking over his shoulder."
In the Bizarro World that enveloped us after 9/11, all values were inverted: good became evil, war was transmuted into peace, and the very concept of liberty was erased, replaced by the false idol of security. And the nightmare continues: long after the smoke that choked Manhattan cleared, our queer condition persists. In our new world-turned-upside-down, the guilty are glorified and the innocent pursued to the ends of the earth.
Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists contacted by Snowden to act as a conduit for his revelations, wrote a book before all of this happened that perfectly explains why and how this came to be possible. In With Liberty and Justice for Some (2012), he prefigured Snowden’s predicament with eerie accuracy:
"Those with political and financial clout are routinely allowed to break the law with no legal repercussions whatsoever. Often they need not even exploit their access to superior lawyers because they don’t see the inside of a courtroom in the first place — not even when they get caught in the most egregious criminality. The criminal justice system is now reserved almost exclusively for ordinary Americans, who are routinely subjected to harsh punishments even for the pettiest of offenses."
While there is nothing remotely petty about Snowden’s alleged "offense," the fact that he revealed documents exposing DNI chief James Clapper as a liar – and a felon – is the kind of touch a good novelist might have made use of. Doubtless Snowden read Greenwald’s book before deciding to entrust the combative former lawyer with the NSA’s darkest secrets, and it impressed upon him his own probable fate. Which raises the question: is this the kind of society we want to be?
This question has also occurred to the editorial board of the New York Times, whose plea to treat Snowden with leniency is causing a stir in Washington circles. How often is the Old Grey Lady on the opposite side of the barricades from the President? If even these stalwarts have deserted their posts, then perhaps the administration will come to believe they have something to worry about.
Pushback against the groundswell in support of Snowden is coming from the Usual Suspects, and the competition for most egregious has clearly been won by Michael Hayden, former NSA and CIA chief during the Bush years, who told an interviewer;
"’There is a lot of push to give clemency for Jonathan Pollard who did far less damage than Snowden and the U.S. intelligence community has been adamant against clemency for Pollard,’ Hayden said. He added that giving clemency to Snowden would send the message to future leakers: ‘If you are going to do this, make sure you steal enough secrets to bargain for clemency.’"
Jonathan Pollard was and is an enemy of the American people: he stole what some US officials described as the "crown jewels" of the US intelligence community on behalf of a foreign power. Truly a traitor, responsible for the deaths of American agents in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, Pollard is now being actively considered for a pardon at least by Secretary of State John Kerry, who has reportedly broached the possibility to his Israeli interlocutors. No doubt it is being seriously discussed and considered in top administration circles even as I write. That in itself is a moral obscenity: contrasting this to Snowden’s status as a hunted refugee from the American Stasi amplifies the obscenity a hundred-fold.
What Snowden did was the precise opposite of Pollard’s treason: motivated by patriotism – that is, devotion to the Constitution – he acted on behalf of the American people. Far from stealing, what he did was reclaim knowledge illegally withheld from us. His bravery restored our ability to make our government answer for its crimes. Hayden’s Bizarro World comparison of a national hero to a shameless traitor might baffle some, but it’s important to understand where he’s coming from.
To Hayden – and, indeed, to 99% of official Washington’s denizens – Snowden did indeed betray this country’s secrets to a foreign power. No, not Russia or China, as the Jamie Kirchicks of this world claim (without evidence): if that were the case, we’d have by this time seen NSA documents appearing in the state-controlled media of those countries. What’s important to understand is that Hayden & Co. consider the rest of the country outside of official circles in Washington to be a foreign country. Which is why they can rationalize violating the constitutional rights of Americans with their data dragnet: for them, spying on a potentially hostile foreign power and invading America’s inboxes is essentially the same thing.
As far as our political class is concerned, the American people are like children: to be humored, but never coddled – and potentially a danger to themselves and others. They see government as a father substitute for the nation, and this paternalism is embodied in its purest form by the gang that’s currently in power.
On Twitter today [Thursday], Greenwald expressed the hope that liberal pundit Kevin Drum’s slow turnaround on the Snowden Question represents a "tipping point in opinion at least among progressive and Democratic pundits" in Snowden’s favor, but this I seriously doubt. The reason is because the sheer scale of the NSA’s crimes against the letter of the Constitution – and the spirit of liberal democracy – upends their conception of government as benevolent protector against threats both foreign and domestic. They are the threat – and revealing that ominous reality is, in their eyes, Snowden’s real "treason."
Yes, there are many progressive pundits and politicians who are outraged by the NSA’s abrogation of our privacy, and they have joined with libertarians and an increasing number of conservatives in a campaign to roll back the Surveillance State. Yet one can’t help detecting a certain uneasiness in Drum’s piece, a suspicion that he undermines a basic tenet of their worldview.
One objection raised by Snowden’s critics on both sides of the political spectrum is contained in the frequent question: "Who was Snowden to decide he would be the one to override his superiors and take it upon himself to unmask the NSA? "Narcissistic," "arrogant," and "insufferable" are just a few of the adjectives Regime-friendly pundits have attached to him. And while this seems like the most trivial and content-less critique imaginable, designed to divert attention away from what’s in the NSA documents themselves, it is surely not without political-ideological significance. For what they are saying is that a lone individual – an ordinary American, in many respects typical of his generation, and without the requisite "credentials" – must defer to the superior moral authority of the State. This refusal to pay obeisance is the signature theme of the Snowden story, and it is this defiance that is apparent in what Drum perceives as "Snowden’s personal demeanor," which, he admits, "has set me on edge once or twice." What seems like mere personal invective has a political subtext: who is this arrogant bastard who thinks he knows better than the collective wisdom of US government officials? This is the not-so-hidden premise shared by both progressive and neoconservative critics of Snowden and the team of journalists who have taken up his cause.
If I were a progressive thought leader I’d be on edge every time I heard Snowden’s name, because he more than any other factor is responsible for the polling numbers that tell us a record number of Americans – a whopping 70 percent – consider their own government the biggest threat to the United States. Those are we’re-in-a-revolutionary-situation numbers, and that has got to have the We Love Government crowd more than a bit "on edge." The legitimacy of the post-WWII Welfare-Warfare State is now in question, and certainly the moral authority of the gang currently in power has been annihilated. The stage is set for the upending of the New Progressive Order, and the restoration of our old Republic, and we libertarians have Edward Snowden to thank for that.
In this context, the effort to end Snowden’s persecution at the hands of the US government has got to be the top priority of all libertarians worthy of the name – and all people of good will. His personal fate is the measure of our future: if we allow the politicians to hound him – and quite possibly imprison him for life – we sentence ourselves to the same fate.
I have to add that the personal situation of the journalists in contact with Snowden, who have been reporting this story, is an indicator of the tyrannous future awaiting us. Both Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras have been effectively exiled, with the former being told that he can’t expect to be immune to legal prosecution if he reenters the US and the latter routinely harassed at airports to the point where she has taken up residence in Germany. This is an absolute outrage, and, to my knowledge, Rep. Alan Grayson is the only member of Congress to protest this naked authoritarianism. Grayson’s inquiries to the Justice Department have so far gone unanswered. Where are the journalists protesting this deadly threat to the First Amendment and their profession?
What can you do? You can join the chorus of voices calling for Snowden’s pardon by organizing local rallies, writing letters to the editor, and initiating independent efforts to secure his personal safety and autonomy. Open letters to US government officials from prominent people in the professions – writers, business executives, academics, etc. – have been notable by their absence. For these are the very people who have the most to lose from the intellectual deadening that is the inevitable result of a society under surveillance 24/7.
What you can do right this minute is sign the White House petition to pardon Snowden unconditionally, which now has in excess of 140,000 signatures – way beyond the alleged "threshold" compelling an answer from the White House. Imagine if the number was half a million – they’d have a hard time ignoring that. And even if they did, their stony silence in the face of such overwhelming support for one of our greatest national heroes would speak volumes in and of itself. We need to pressure the Regime in every possible way – prior to its overthrow. Please go here and sign. Yes, you have to register, but that’s the least you can do for the man who gave us the key to winning back our freedom.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.