On a lazy Sunday reading the paper and following Ed Snowden around the world on Twitter, I came across a couple of gems…
It is my hope that the revelations of the extent of U.S. government spying on its citizens that were sparked by Snowden’s leaks lead us to really talk about it, not just repeat talking points: are we prepared to surrender so much of our privacy and our freedom without a fight? Do we have any reason to trust the government when it say it’s only looking for bad guys and foreigners and is protecting us? A Guardian story I came across in Jack Shafer’s Twitter feed makes the point:
At every point in this unfolding story, government ministers and officials on both sides of the Atlantic have been at pains to point out that everything that is done by the NSA and GCHQ is lawful because there is “legal oversight”. The problem is that citizens have to take their word for it because every substantive aspect of that oversight is secret.
The conversation between the state and the citizen has been reduced to a dialogue that the writer would have recognised. It goes like this.
State Although intrusive surveillance does infringe a few liberties, it’s necessary if you are to be protected from terrible things.
Citizen (anxiously) What terrible things?
State Can’t tell you, I’m afraid, but believe us they are truly terrible. And, by the way, surveillance has already prevented some terrible things.
Citizen Such as?
State Sorry, can’t go into details about those either.
Citizen So how do I know that this surveillance racket isn’t just bureaucratic empire building?
State You don’t need to worry about that because it’s all done under legal authority.
Citizen So how does that work?
State Regrettably, we can’t go into details because if we did so then the bad guys might get some ideas.
What it comes down to, in the end, is: “Trust us.” And the trouble with that is that in recent decades our political elites have done precious little to deserve our trust.
Need more proof? How about the news that the Obama Administration is pushing all federal departments and agencies—not just those concerned with national security—to have employees watch their colleagues but also to “pursue unauthorized disclosures of any information, not just classified material.”
The program could make it easier for the government to stifle the flow of unclassified and potentially vital information to the public, while creating toxic work environments poisoned by unfounded suspicions and spurious investigations of loyal Americans, according to these current and former officials and experts. Some non-intelligence agencies already are urging employees to watch their co-workers for “indicators” that include stress, divorce and financial problems.
“It was just a matter of time before the Department of Agriculture or the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) started implementing, ‘Hey, let’s get people to snitch on their friends.’ The only thing they haven’t done here is reward it,” said Kel McClanahan, a Washington lawyer who specializes in national security law. “I’m waiting for the time when you turn in a friend and you get a $50 reward.”
I concede that there are areas of government operations where the need to protect sensitive information is legitimate, but not every area of government meets that standard. That’s why it’s important that there are people who leak government secrets, and that we have news publications of every medium that investigate and publish that information. The leakers don’t have to be saints for us to be thankful they are there, as Ben Smith writes in BuzzFeed today.
There is now a heated debate over the moral status of Edward Snowden — who fled Hong Kong for Moscow en route, reportedly, to Ecuador Sunday — and over whether his decision to flee almost certain conviction and imprisonment in the United States means that his actions can’t be considered “civil disobedience.” These seem like good questions for a philosophy class. They are terrible, boring, ones for reporters, and have more to do with the confusing new news environment than with the actual news.
Snowden is what used to be known as a source. And reporters don’t, and shouldn’t, spend too much time thinking about the moral status of their sources. Sources sometimes act from the best of motives — a belief that readers should know something is amiss, or a simple desire to see a good story told. They also often act from motives far more straightforwardly venal than anything than has been suggested of Snowden: They want to screw someone who is in their way professionally; they want to score an ideological point by revealing a personal misdeed; they are acting on an old grudge, and serving revenge cold; they are collecting chits with the press to be cashed in later.
…the new media ecosystem has moved sources to the foreground. They make their cases directly on Twitter or in web videos; in Snowden’s case, he also chose to protect himself by going and staying public in a way that would never before have been fully possible. “Big news will now carve its own route to the ocean, and no one feels the need to work with the traditional power players to make it happen,” David Carr wrote recently. The fact that the public must now meet our sources, with their complex motives and personalities, is part of that deal.
Snowden’s flight is a great, classic international story. It is, as Glenn Greenwald tweeted today, a kind of global White Bronco moment. His roots in web culture; his ideology; his decision-making; these are all great stories. He’s a much more interesting figure than Mark Felt because, at least, he’s a new figure, not a familiar one.
Snowden’s flight and its surrounding geopolitics are a good story; what he made public is a better one. I’m not sure why reporters should care all that much about his personal moral status, the meaning of the phrase “civil disobedience,” or the fate of his eternal soul. And the public who used to be known as “readers” are going to have to get used to making that distinction.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Tom The Dancing Bug has something to say on this subject:
Thanks to TDB and GoComics.com.