At this writing Edward Snowdon is believed to be in Russia, apparently awaiting a flight to Cuba, from whence he hopes to continue on to Ecuador or Venezuela or someplace else, after having been granted permission to flee Hong Kong by the People’s Republic of China, thereby thwarting the efforts of the United States to charge him with espionage.
If you think Snowdon’s escape route is convoluted, just consider the issues surrounding his (whistleblowing) (treason) in revealing the scope of United States government surveillance of its citizens. The government, Snowdon’s stolen files revealed, collects and stores metadata on every phone call you make or receive, all your emails, your web-browsing history, Facebook postings, online chats, instant messaging, and every other electronic crumb you leave while traversing the intertubes.
Have the government’s unprecedented (and perhaps extralegal) surveillance efforts been successful? The government says yes; it says dozens of terrorist plots have been thwarted, including at least 10 in the United States. But the proof is classified. Can the government tell me if my communications have been intercepted and examined? No, because doing so would require violating my privacy, the government lawyers say. So how about it, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Verizon, AT&T and other communications carriers: Is the government ordering you to siphon off my private information? Sorry, we can’t tell you, they say, because such information would require a National Security Letter, and the government says anyone revealing even the existence of a National Security Letter is breaking the law.
Joseph Heller’s book Catch-22 described the plight of Captain Yossarian, whose desire for self-preservation intensified after his World War II bomber crewmate, Snowdon, was ripped apart by shrapnel during a mission. Yossarian went crazy. He wandered around saying, “Where are the Snowdons of yesteryear?” Even the Army acknowledged his craziness. Military rules stated that crazy people are exempt from flying combat missions. But when Yossarian requested being exempted from combat missions, because he was crazy, he was denied. You’d have to be crazy to want to go on a combat mission, the Army rules said; seeking to avoid combat was rational, and therefore anyone who sought to get out of combat was, ipso facto, not crazy.
Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
The Snowdon affair prompted me to re-read Joseph Heller’s masterpiece (which, by the way, was made into a movie in 1970, starring the excellent Alan Arkin). Heller penned many brilliant passages in Catch-22 that apply themselves directly to the current situation, among them:
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
“…[A]nything worth dying for … is certainly worth living for.”
“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
“And what difference does that make?”
“Insanity is contagious.”
“[They] agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything.”
“Mankind is resilient: The atrocities that horrified us a week ago become acceptable tomorrow.”
“Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian’s fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.”
Counting Snowdon, the Obama Administration has now invoked the Espionage Act of 1917 seven times. Beginning with Woodrow Wilson in 1917 and continuing through George W. Bush, through World Wars I and II, the Cold War, Vietnam, Grenada, Kuwait, Kosovo, Iran and Iraq, Obama’s 16 predecessors invoked the Espionage Act a total of three times.
Snowdon, a very bright high school dropout, was granted “Top Secret” security clearances by the Central Intelligence Agency. He was until recently a systems administrator working for Booz Allen Hamilton, which was in turn working for the National Security Agency (NSA). Of the estimated 1.4 million people who hold “Top Secret” clearances, more than 500,000 of them are private contractors like Edward Snowdon. The probability that Snowdon is the only unhappy camper among those 500,000 — let alone 1.4 million — is definitely less than 1. (Sorry, I’m geeking up on discrete probability in preparation for Dan Boneh’s Cryptography I class at Stanford.)
I’m sure the government is now asking, “Where are the Snowdons of tomorrow?”
And there are lots of people asking, “Is Snowdon a patriot or a traitor?”
To me, the real question is, “If it weren’t for Snowdon and the free press, how would we know about the astonishing scope of secret government surveillance programs?”
One of the most important responsibilities of a free press is holding the government responsible for its actions. This job cannot be done responsibly if investigative reporters are themselves under surveillance, or accused of aiding and abetting people like Snowdon or Bradley Manning or Daniel Ellsberg. The Obama Administration just last month admitted wiretapping the phones of the Associated Press offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and in the House of Representatives. It also admitted bugging the cellphones and home phones of AP journalists.
The job is even harder when the government simply lies. During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in March, Sen. Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, asked Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, point blank: “What I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question: does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
“No, sir,” Clapper said. “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”
In April, we learned that the government instructed Verizon to turn over all phone records on millions of Americans to the National Security Agency. The order, issued by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, explicitly authorized the NSA to collect metadata “between the United States and abroad; or wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.”
Director Clapper’s defense is that he thought Sen. Wyden’s question was unfair. “So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying no,” Lt. Gen. Clapper said recently.
As Yossarian might have said, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean the government isn’t collecting data about your every email and phone call and storing it in a database. Now it’s confirmed.
The issue is not Snowdon; the issue we should be debating is the rampant, unwarranted government surveillance of its own citizens.
UPDATE: Mr. Snowdon recently was granted a one-year visa to remain in Russia.