Spying's the Real Story, Not Edward Snowden

The NSA presents a grave threat to liberty, but the pundits just talk about the Snowden sideshow.

I promised myself to stay away from Orwell metaphors for the duration of the latest surveillance-state controversy. But the punditocracy's recent "two-minutes hate" against National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden has me backsliding already.

Judging by the vicious -- and irrelevant -- attacks on Snowden's character, all too many leading pundits and journalists love nothing more than a ritual ragegasm against an alleged enemy of the state.

The Washington Post's Richard Cohen calls Snowden a "cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood"; he's a "total slacker" with "all the qualifications to become a grocery bagger" jeers Politico's Roger Simon. Snowden's "a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison" offers The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin; Fox News's Ralph Peters raises the stakes: a "narcissistic traitor" who belongs on death row.

Some want to shoot the messenger, others want to give him a medal: both Michael Moore and Glenn Beck call Snowden a "hero."

So which is it: #TeamEdward or #TeamNSA? What's a fangirl to do?

That's a question best left to the teeny boppers. The content of the message is far more important than the character of the messenger.

Here, the most disturbing aspect of the Snowden revelations is the NSA's comprehensive, multiyear call-records database, with communication and phone-location information on millions of Americans. Especially if combined with metadata on emails, website visits and financial transactions that the agency is also amassing, that information is a potential treasure trove for political abuse -- it can be used to ferret out the sort of information governments have historically used to blackmail and neutralize political opponents: who's leaking, who's organizing, who's having an affair. The potential abuse of that information represents a grave threat to American liberty and privacy regardless of Snowden's character and motivations.

In an post last week, Buzzfeed's Ben Smith makes the key point: "You Don't Have to Like Edward Snowden." Snowden, Smith argues, is "a source," and the information sources convey is far more important than their "moral status" or the "fate of [their] eternal soul[s]."

Smith mentions Mark Felt, the FBI honcho who served as Woodward and Bernstein's "Deep Throat" during their investigation of the Watergate burglary and cover-up. Felt, it turned out, was simply settling scores in a bureaucratic power struggle. He had no scruples against criminal violations of privacy -- in 1980 he was convicted of conspiring to violate the constitutional rights of Americans through warrantless break-ins as part of the FBI's COINTELPRO program.

It was important for Americans to know that their president was a crook. That Mark Felt was also a crook is neither here nor there. As Smith puts it, "who cares?"

In The Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart insists that Edward Snowden was no Daniel Ellsberg, the "badass" combat veteran and defense analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers and stood trial for it.

Again, who cares? It was important for Americans to know what that classified report revealed: that our government lied its way into the Vietnam War and lied more to keep us in it.

The government has been lying to us here as well -- and rather brazenly. In March, Senator Ron Wyden asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Clapper answered, "No sir. ... Not wittingly." He later defended that answer as the "least untruthful" one he could give. ("Yes," would have fit the bill better, one would think).

The debate over the content of Edward Snowden's character is a sideshow. But how we respond to what he's exposed will reveal something about our national character.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.

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  • Rich||

    The Washington Post's Richard Cohen calls Snowden a "cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood"

    Now, *that* is good journalism.

  • Live Free or Diet||

    Cohen better be careful. I'm pretty sure Snowden's girlfriend can take him.

  • John||

    If we didn't know if what Snowden was saying was true, his character and credibility would be important. In contrast to Snowden, we have no idea if the Bush guy who claims the NSA was spying on then voting present Senator Obama or not. So his credibility and character are important. But we know that Snowden gave true information. So "but Snowden is a bad guy" is nothing but a dodge.

  • Rich||

    Waiting for someone to claim that more is known about Snowden than about Obama ....

  • John||

    LOL. Sadly that is true. We know what Snowden did or did not do in college. We know what jobs he held and what he did in those jobs. We know none of that about Obama.

  • Tony||

    I haven't read Moby Dick, therefore nobody knows what happens in Moby Dick.

    --John logic

  • MoMark||

    I’m sorry Tony, but I don’t understand your analogy. What is it about Obama’s transcripts and job experiences that we don’t know because we have not read “Moby Dick,” that others do know, because they have read “Moby Dick?” Am I not seeing something here, or is your equivalence really weird?

  • ||

    "Moby Dick was never released, but we'll take Melville's word for it that he wrote it because he's a swell guy" is the better analogy.

  • Tony||

    This is the sentiment being expressed by sane people from all political sides. The media, of course, can't be bothered with complex debates about the surveillance state. This "where's Snowden" business is way sexier. Almost movie-like.

  • John||

    Talking about Snowden gets the heat off of Obama. And that is the media's mission.

  • Rich||

  • Brandon||

    That's also Tony's mission. Notice he vilifies the media here and doesn't mention the administration that has brought charges against Snowden.

  • Tony||

    He clearly broke the law, what was the administration supposed to do?

  • ||

    Maybe they could push for a whistle blower protection law? Just a thought.

  • Tony||

    I'd be for stronger whistleblower protections. But the administration has made clear that it believes it is exercising a proper balance with these programs and that harm was done to US interests by these leaks.

    That's its position. It would know better than a bunch of knee-jerk Obama haters, that's for sure, but the propriety of the laws allowing this is certainly up for debate--but expecting it not to bring charges is pretty silly.

  • tarran||

    But the administration has made clear that it believes it is exercising a proper balance with these programs and that harm was done to US interests by these leaks.

    Given their hysterical reaction, and the various lies/contradictory stories they've been peddling in the aftermath of the revelations, it's pretty clear they don't think they've been maintaining a proper balance.

    They've been acting like a two year old busted with his hand in the cookie jar.

  • MoMark||

    And of course if this was 2006 instead of 2013 you would be making the same reasoned argument, yes?

  • Nazdrakke||

    Oh, dunno, maybe just ignore it the way they do with laws they don't like?

  • tarran||

    Espionage?

    Which foreign state did he pass secrets to Tonykins?

  • Tony||

    Snowden was charged with theft, “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person,” according to the complaint. The last two charges were brought under the 1917 Espionage Act.

    --WaPo

  • Jordan||

    Of course those charges are bullshit, since classification can't be used to conceal criminal acts, which the government was clearly engaged in.

  • tarran||

    Per popehat,

    798(a)(3). Based on the plain language of the statute, it seems to require the government to prove that the defendant (1) knowingly and willfully [that is, not accidentally] (2) communicated or made available to an unauthorized person, (3) in any manner prejudicial to the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the United States, (4) classified information concerning communication intelligence activities of the U.S. or any foreign government. (Some might disagree that element (3) modifies all the possible ways to violate the statute.)

    Note that the second and third charges both require the feds to prove that Snowden's release of information to the press was harmful to the United States. This puts our government in the position of attempting to prove that it is harmful to release accurate information about how it is spying on us, and how it is misleading us about spying on us.

    Espionage charges usually describe someone with classified information leaking that information to powers hostile to the United States government.

    We, the people, are those hostile powers.
  • Jordan||

    Exercise prosecutorial discretion? Shut down this clearly unconstitutional program? Require all executive agencies to procure a warrant from a non-kangaroo court before intercepting communications?

  • Almanian!||

    JORDAN WANTS THE TERRRRZSSSSTTSZ TO WIN! NSA CHECK HIM OUT!!!!

  • DaveSs||

    "He clearly broke the law, what was the administration supposed to do?"

    On the basis of the fact that the program they were running was clearly unconstitutional, they should resign and be prepare themselves to accept the legal consequences for their illegal activities.

  • Tony||

    So how do you know Snowden isn't in on it?

    The media was all over scandals that turned out to be minor or nonevents for weeks. It was all the media talked about. But when Darell Issa is blowing smoke, you ought to expect that eventually the media will lose interest, since he never manages to actually put up anything.

    I realize that if you hold a worldview that is counter to so many of the actual facts in the world, you need to construct elaborate conspiracy theories to sustain the lies. The news media, science, academia, the arts--all biased against you. Couldn't possibly be the case that you're wrong about most things.

  • Nazdrakke||

    I realize that if you hold a worldview that is counter to so many of the actual facts in the world,

    Please write this on a post-it note, tape it to your bathroom mirror, and read it at least 100 times a day.

  • tarran||

    I realize that if you hold a worldview that is counter to so many of the actual facts in the world, you need to construct elaborate conspiracy theories to sustain the lies.

    Once again, Tony has me laughing. This is nuclear grade projection right there. :D

  • ||

    Your idea of what constitutes a scandal seems to have a fairly aggressive sliding scale. The fact that you are comfortable excusing everything this administration does because Obama is such a dreamboat doesn't matter all that much to adults with brains. And it wouldn't really matter if the administration was the persecuted lamb you make it out to be anyway. Even if poor Obama had been framed up a thousand times before, the one time when he's unquestionably in it up to his balls still matters. Not to you, of course. But again, to adults with brains.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    The Nazified Tonys of the world expose themselves:

    For the neo-progressive surveillance staters, Bush-era waterboarding would be too good for Snowden. An Obama killer-drone would be better for this anti-police-state criminal Snowden.

  • AlexInCT||

    As long as the surveilance are done by their fellow progressives and targets those icky others, they are fine and willing to take it up that a$$ for the team.

  • Mizchief||

    It's a cover-up by the media plain and simple. Was the same thing with Julian Assange. The media makes the leaker famous and report the adventurous story of his background and hunt for his capture, all the while the actual information leaked sinks into the background noise.

    Who actually remembers what information was leaked by Assange that was worth the backlash?

  • sarcasmic||

    Liberals truly believe in ad hominem arguments.

    That's why every flaw in Snowden's character makes the NSA's spying feel a little more OK.

    Don't think about it. Emote. Then it will all make sense.

  • Xenocles||

    Liberals People truly believe in ad hominem arguments against opposing causes.

    It takes real discipline to avoid this trap.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Whether he's pure, tainted, or entirely corrupt, the government is the bad guy here. And the greater danger by many orders of magnitude.

  • ||

    You'll note how often the media water-carriers call him "narcissistic". You'll also note how fucking strong the projection is with these people. It's amazing how un-self-aware these twits are.

  • Pro Libertate||

    The attacks on his character are more insidious than that, because I'm sure the government will strongly suggest some of the information he leaks is simply made up. Which means pre-sliming him is important for weakening his credibility.

    The media should be focusing its attention almost entirely on the information he's leaked and will leak to find out if it's true. And to dig into whether the government has acted illegally and, if not, to ask why some of it isn't illegal.

  • ||

    The media might be interested in doing those things if the media wasn't part and parcel of the state at this point. "4th estate" indeed.

  • Pro Libertate||

    We need a different media. A new media, if you will.

  • Tim||

    Would this thing be properly licensed and well regulated?

  • Pro Libertate||

    No, piss off.

  • Tim||

    A good piss is more satisfying than talking to you anyway.

  • Almanian!||

    Better to be pissed off than pissed on, I always say

  • Pro Libertate||

    I reject your proposal for a well-regulated media.

  • Tim||

    But terrorism?

  • ||

    According to Tony the real questions here are whether or not Greenwald is a real journalist and whether Snowden is a spy or a whistleblower. Of course both questions are no-brainers.

    It puzzles the shit out of me why anyone would sympathize with an authoritarian state.

  • thom||

    Because Obama.

  • ||

    The most stunning development so far are journalists calling for the prosecution of their colleagues for publishing news stories.

    Talk about tearing off the mask....Jesus.

  • Loki||

    Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.

    Obviously we have a lot of small minds in the media.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I reject your proposal for a well-regulated media.

    Why would anybody need a fully automatic printer, anyway?

  • Pro Libertate||

    Or one that can print more than seven sheets.

  • Anders||

    The mainstream media is almost entirely controlled by statists who skew socialist. Under Bush, they would all have called Snowden a hero. Under O, this man is a traitor who must be put to death.

    Glenn Greenwald, who is as lefty as they come, actually had to hand David Gregory his ass on a plate and explain this to him.

    But lets look at the upside - we have broad bipartisan agreement that we should shred the Constitution. "Broken Congress" my ass! Yerghghghhghgh!!!!!!

  • Xeynon||

    If Snowden's smart - and he clearly is, traipsing across the world while trolling a plane load of reporters into taking an expensive and unwanted flight to Cuba and manipulating public opinion in China and Russia so that telling Obama to go fuck himself was the better play for Xi and Putin than turning him over to the US - he's kept a few damning revelations up his sleeve. The character assassination attempts will play themselves out, and then once the public has started to move on Greenwald can unleash another story/more evidence directly contradicting the administration line and demonstrating how mendacious and untrustworthy they are.

    And narcissists don't come any more grandiose than Jeffrey Toobin. Jeebus H. Christ, what a piece of shit that guy is.

  • Xeynon||

    If Snowden's smart - and he clearly is, traipsing across the world while trolling a plane load of reporters into taking an expensive and unwanted flight to Cuba and manipulating public opinion in China and Russia so that telling Obama to go fuck himself was the better play for Xi and Putin than turning him over to the US - he's kept a few damning revelations up his sleeve. The character assassination attempts will play themselves out, and then once the public has started to move on Greenwald can unleash another story/more evidence directly contradicting the administration line and demonstrating how mendacious and untrustworthy they are.

    And narcissists don't come any more grandiose than Jeffrey Toobin. Jeebus H. Christ, what a piece of shit that guy is.

  • Xeynon||

    If Snowden's smart - and he clearly is, traipsing across the world while trolling a plane load of reporters into taking an expensive and unwanted flight to Cuba and manipulating public opinion in China and Russia so that telling Obama to go fuck himself was the better play for Xi and Putin than turning him over to the US - he's kept a few damning revelations up his sleeve. The character assassination attempts will play themselves out, and then once the public has started to move on Greenwald can unleash another story/more evidence directly contradicting the administration line and demonstrating how mendacious and untrustworthy they are.

    And narcissists don't come any more grandiose than Jeffrey Toobin. Jeebus H. Christ, what a piece of shit that guy is.

  • Obbop||

    I fear the federal government more than all foreign threats combined.

    I believe the USA is in the midst of full-scale class war and that the feds are in cahoots with those atop the socio-economic hierarchy and monolithic corporate entities along with other institutions, etc.

    Go Snowden!!!!!!

    A commoner who slapped the face of the few and their lackeys who have brainwashed so many Americans into believing as things are is correct and proper.

    Read the various comments at innumerable Web sites.

    It seems to me there is a groundswell of anger rising within the USA that could conceivably result in Revolutionary War 2.

    Let it come.

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    upto I looked at the paycheck ov $4499, I did not believe ...that...my brother was like realey earning money part time on their computer.. there uncles cousin started doing this for under 7 months and resently cleared the morgage on there appartment and bourt a top of the range Smart ForTwo. this is where I went, Go to site and open Home for details
    http://WWW.JOBS31.COM

  • Obbop||

    Is that the site that as soon as you go to it your computer becomes infested with trojans that take expensive repairs to get rid of?

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