It is completely wrong for this country to change ANY policy in response to Edward Snowden’s actions

Slatest got straight to the heart of the matter:

Edward Snowden was the first to declare victory. On Monday night, the Obama administration had, via the New York Times, announced the imminent end of the bulk collection of metadata and proposed new rules requiring the National Security Agency to get warrants before grabbing individual records. It was far less than what civil libertarians had wanted. But Snowden calledthe White House announcement a “turning point” and the “beginning of a new effort to reclaim our rights from the NSA.”

The race to the bandwagon had begun. By Tuesday morning the Republican-run House Intelligence Committee was polishing and promoting the End Bulk Collection Act of 2014, which would grudgingly achieve much of what the White House grudgingly asked for. On Tuesday afternoon, Sens. Rand Paul, Ron Wyden, and Mark Udall strolled into a Senate hallway bustling with reporters to accept the NSA’s partial surrender….

Never mind Rand Paul, et al. The Washington Post reports “an emerging consensus” from the White House to the Hill that the collection of metadata must cease.

This is an utter outrage.

A former junior employee of a government contractor, traveling with stolen national security secrets, broadcasts what he knows to the world. The President of the United States says the programs Snowden is on about are legal, measured, accountable and appropriate. Responsible members of Congress back him up.

A mere few months later, after a drip-drip-drip campaign by this self-appointed king of America (what else to call someone who is not elected, but takes it upon himself to subvert the policies and procedures arrived at by the duly constituted authorities in all three branches of our government?) and his fellow travelers, enough emotion and semi-conscious twitches of discomfort have been detected among the American public that the president, and the Congress, are ready to abandon policies that they know to be just fine as they are.

And the new “decider” for America is so obviously deluded, so obviously a fantasist with no sense of perspective, that it’s appalling to think of him deciding anything.

There are some who agree with Snowden’s fantasy that he is a defender of our Constitution. And yet, what he has done is presume to subvert the system of decision-making and checks and balances that our Constitution was written to set up.

This is disgusting. And it is an open invitation to the next self-aggrandizing, malcontent punk with a far-too-high security clearance who wants to undo American policy all by his lonesome. Just throw a wrench into the works! The United States government will bow down before you!

The only proper governmental response to Edward Snowden was to pursue him, to apprehend him if possible, to try him, and to lock him away.

Instead, this is what our elected leaders have done…

50 thoughts on “It is completely wrong for this country to change ANY policy in response to Edward Snowden’s actions

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oh, and before someone argues (again) that it’s appropriate for POTUS and Congress to change their minds as a result of all the terribly pertinent things Edward Snowden has revealed that they supposedly didn’t know…

    I’ve heard one thing about the NSA programs that gives me pause: It was the report back in February that our intel establishment is actually only collecting records on about 30 percent of all U.S. calls, instead of most or all of them.

    That, to me, calls into question the effectiveness of the program. A rethinking of its efficacy based on the argument that it does too little to be effective, rather than doing too much, would seem to be a conversation worth having — assuming that report was accurate.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That report was worrying not just on the grounds of effectiveness.

      It was also disturbing because, to the extent that I worry about privacy in all of this (which, as you know, is not something that keeps me up nights), I take comfort in the knowledge that ALL, or most, of the data is being sifted for patterns. The more limited the program, the less anonymous it is, and the more it approaches being an unfair intrusion into the affairs of the limited number of people whose data IS being collected…

  2. Doug Ross

    If you have nothing to hide, you don’t have to worry about being caught. Isn’t that your mantra?
    The NSA got caught and the President had to respond. It’s his problem if he can’t explain to the American public that all those programs are necessary and incapable of being abused.

    Anyway, it’s more likely that this is all window dressing. The NSA will just take their activities deeper undercover.

    My guess is Snowden has even more damaging evidence that he is holding as his “get out of jail” or “don’t kill me” cards.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “The NSA got caught?” You mean, caught doing the job that the law — the perfectly constitutional law that has the three branches of government providing oversight on each other — REQUIRES it to do?

      As for your cynical assertion that “The NSA will just take their activities deeper undercover.” Now see, THAT would be a problem. THAT would be an agency going off and acting without proper legal oversight. And maybe, if that happens and we learn about it, some people who now think that Snowden has provided a valuable service will finally understand that he has indeed done damage to the rule of law in this country.

  3. Doug Ross

    And wouldn’t Obama have had an easier time selling this if he had released details about some SPECIFIC threats that had been stopped as a result of these programs? Billions of dollars are being spent. What’s the return on investment?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Maybe so. Although it’s a little hard for me to imagine how he could have done that without compromising our security.

      The danger, in revealing that we stopped a terrorist act through this program, is that while groups like al Qaeda may already know that that particular plot was thwarted, telling them that it was thwarted as a result of the NSA program — even without any more details than that — helps them zero in on how to change their tradecraft to avoid such detection in the future.

      If there had been something the president could reveal safely, that might have been helpful. But it wouldn’t surprise me much if he couldn’t come up with something he could tell about without compromising our efforts.

  4. bud

    Brad, I don’t understand why you get so worked up over this. Snowden merely brought to the public’s attention a program that has little justification for security but major implications for government intrusion into our lives. Shouldn’t we have this discussion? Without knowing about it we can’t choose between greater security/less privacy vs greater privacy/less security. Some are suggesting Snowden for the Nobel Peace prize. That may be going a bit far but I do think he did the nation a service.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      But you see, it is NOT “a program that has little justification for security but major implications for government intrusion into our lives.” Its value in promoting security is fairly obvious — not only to me, but to a broad swathe of smart elected leaders from across the political spectrum. And I’ve seen no indication that anyone has suffered even any inconvenience, much less onerous “government intrusion.”

      Snowden and Greenwald and their pals have utterly failed to back up their absurd, fantasist assertions that this is Orwellian (or in Snowden’s childishly hyperbolic claim, WORSE than Orwellian).

      It is an outrage that someone with as little regard for our laws, our national security or even the basic obligations that one owes to other people in one’s life (such as those he worked with) could take it upon himself to decide that he knows better than the grownups entrusted with actual constitutional authority, and not only GET AWAY WITH IT (which is outrageous enough), but see the United States of America kneel before him and give him what he wants.

      It’s anarchic. And I can offer no more condemnatory judgment than that.

  5. Juan Caruso

    The week the first Snowden story broke I thought to myself, how could this be without destroying the attorney-client privilege and why had not influential D.C. attorneys and Senators raised that question with journalists?

    Well, after weeks (maybe months) some local lawyer tried to defend his client by telling a judge he suspected the prosecutor seemed to have obtained some privileged communication from the NSA to convict his (innocent until proven guilty) terrorist client. Then, and only then did our watchful journalists report NSA chief Clapper’s response to the one attorney’s charge: “The NSA never has and never will violate the privilege.”

    There is little doubtin my mind that Edward Snowden has always been an undercover plant. It would not even surprise me if his true employer were Russia, the Saudis, Valerie Jarrett, or David Rockefeller.

    In case not everyone has noticed yet, Washington has been co-opted by powerful lobbyists the public (and too many journalists) are unable even to name, and who work for powerful interests, foreign and domestic in pursuit of publicly obfuscated goals.

    The degree of integrity in government has been on a decline at least since the Viet Nam conflict. If Congress had declared war, the penalty for treachery would have been death to traitors. Instead, we have been corrupted by deceivers all the while during time of undeclared wars.

    People must again, someday, be held accountable for grave misdeeds and intentional deception that deprives their contemporaries of life, limbs, blood or treasure.

    just a rather dark thought….

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      The attorney-client privilege belongs to the client. If the client waives it, or in this case probably directed his attorney to speak, no problem.

      1. Juan Caruso

        The small percentage of Americans familiar with our attorney-client privilege (like myself) realize
        the client is able to waive it. If the client waived the privilege, it was NOT reported in the news and, had it been, the defense attorney would not have been able even to raise the issue.

        Therefore, KF, what, if anything do you believe your info byte implies for other readers?

        More than a curt reply might be appreciated by the latter.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          I do not follow you.

          The only person who can assert the privilege is in Russia. The media probably assumed, like most people who thought of it, that any privilege had been waived. This seems like a nonissue to me,

  6. Kathryn Fenner

    Brad, we get it. You don’t like what Snowden did. Most of us do not have a problem with it.
    Asked and answered, as we say.

  7. Bryan Caskey

    On a related note, I wonder how much Snowden has specifically compromised the US intelligence gathering capability against the Russians. Putin is letting Snowden chill in Moscow out of the kindness of his KGB heart, I’m sure. No quid pro quo at all. Just ol’ Vlad being his regular congenial self.

    Just in time for a Russia to get all ornery, too.

  8. Norm Ivey

    In the end, will the change make much difference? The telecoms will still retain the bulk data for 18 months, and will be required to provide requested data “swiftly” including calls up to two degrees removed. It feels like it’s meant to mollify the outcry without sacrificing any real ability to carry out serious investigations.

  9. Karen Pearson

    The reason the rules on NSA data collection are changing is because now that the public knows about it they don’t like it. Congress and the President (and/or their parties) want to stay in power. Therefore, when they get enough calls, emails, etc. complaining about it, they change it to something the public will accept. Should the public have realized what they were signing on for when they backed the Patriot Act? Yes. Did they? By and large almost certainly not. But once the info was released the result was pretty predictable. The one who Snowden’s really “beaten” is you. He’s got your goat.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Karen, let’s look at this statement for a moment: “The reason the rules on NSA data collection are changing is because now that the public knows about it they don’t like it.”

      The public knew about these programs before Snowden — that is, the portion of the public that paid attention. I had written about them myself, in passing. I never made a big deal about them because I had no problem with them.

      What Snowden and Greenwald did was conduct a propaganda campaign against the national security apparatus of the United States. With sensationalism and a careful release of one headline-making drip after another, they created an emotional response among vast numbers of people who are not accustomed to thinking about national security matters, and who to this day could probably give you only a vague, incomplete picture of exactly what Snowden has revealed.

      What has been communicated to the vast numbers of people who were not paying attention previously is the sensationalism, a general impression that the government is somehow intruding into our lives in a manner that, in Snowden’s ridiculous characterization, is worse than in Orwell’s 1984.

      When nothing of the kind has been happening or is happening. The assertion that they have is completely absurd. But this emotional response, this public knee-jerk that Snowden has succeeded in producing, is generating a political response, causing officials who know better to back away from useful intelligence-gathering tools.

      I find this kind of policy-making by twitches in the Zeitgeist, rather than on the basis of rational consideration, to be extremely offensive, and harmful to the country. So yeah, this kind of foolishness “gets my goat.” But it’s the country that’s harmed by it. I’m just the guy who gets upset about that.

  10. Malcontent

    NSA employees used spying tools to snoop on women, girlfriends, ex-girlfriends:

    NSA lies to overseeing judges about use of data, cross references data to expand profiles illegally (for American citizens without “articulable suspicion” of wrongdoing), distributes phone records by e-mail to over 100 unapproved analysts:

    FISC report in 2009: “the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program … existed since the inception of its authorised collection in May 2006, buttressed by repeated inaccurate statements made in the government’s submissions, and despite a government-devised and Court-mandated oversight regime … the Court concluded that this requirement [for search] had beenso frequently and systematically violated that it can be fairly said that that this critical element of the overall … regime has never functioned effectively.”

    NSA employees used spying tools to snoop on women, girlfriends, ex-girlfriends:

    NSA lies to overseeing judges about use of data, cross references data to expand profiles illegally (for American citizens without “articulable suspicion” of wrongdoing), distributes phone records by e-mail to over 100 unapproved analysts:

    FISC report in 2009: “the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program … existed since the inception of its authorised collection in May 2006, buttressed by repeated inaccurate statements made in the government’s submissions, and despite a government-devised and Court-mandated oversight regime … the Court concluded that this requirement [for search] had beenso frequently and systematically violated that it can be fairly said that that this critical element of the overall … regime has never functioned effectively.”

    March 12, 2013: DNI James Clapper says says in Senate FIC hearing that no program “wittingly” collects data on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.
    June 2013: After Snowden/The Guardian break the Prism story, Clapper corrects this to say that yes, phone “metadata” is collected on millions of Americans. But only metadata, not content.
    July 2013: After Snowden revelation of XKeyscore (which collects content of e-mails and “nearly everything a user does on the internet”), NSA Director General Alexander says on NBC interview that the NSA DOES collect content.

    Diane Feinstein has said that the Senate Intelligence Committee has little knowledge of what they are supposedly overseeing, and only a couple of weeks ago it was alleged that the CIA has been spying on the SIC – their very oversight committee!

    How can you invoke “checks and balances” and refer to “legal, measured, accountable and appropriate” with a straight face?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I don’t know what caused it (were you copying and pasting?), but it certainly makes it look like you have more evidence for your position! :)

      When public officials abuse their positions for personal purposes, they should be fired. But it’s not an indication that a policy is wrong. It’s not national POLICY that these people snoop on their girlfriends. And the policy is what we’re discussing.

      The Clapper foot-in-mouth problem, and the CIA snooping that outraged Sen. Feinstein, are instances of individuals fouling up, or overstepping their bounds. Again, they do not speak to whether the policies are wise or constitutional.

      The one thing that seems to speak to the overall program itself is the FISA court report that you cite. And that, of course, is a case of the checks and balances of which I speak at work. What happened as a result? Did things get better or not? If they did, good. If not, the president and the Congress should hold the relevant officials’ feet to the fire.

      But again, the issue here is whether the stated policy, as intended, is proper and useful — whether it is an improper invasion of privacy or not, and whether it works or not. None of these incidents you cite speak to that.

      The government is rolling back the policies themselves, not this or that violation or failure or misstatement of the policy. The policy itself is the relevant matter here…

  11. Mike F.

    Should these 3 NSA whistleblowers be prosecuted, too? One was a 40-year agency veteran:

    For years, the three whistle-blowers had told anyone who would listen that the NSA collects huge swaths of communications data from U.S. citizens. They had spent decades in the top ranks of the agency, designing and managing the very data-collection systems they say have been turned against Americans. When they became convinced that fundamental constitutional rights were being violated, they complained first to their superiors, then to federal investigators, congressional oversight committees and, finally, to the news media.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Mike, I don’t know enough about those situations. I’m far less concerned because, in their estimation, they “failed” where Snowden “succeeded.” He did great harm, where they did not.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      And if you’re wondering whether I respect the opinion of a 40-year agency veteran more than I do Snowden’s, even when I disagree with it — yes, I do. It carries more weight. It doesn’t mean he’s right, but it makes his assessment more worthy of sober consideration.

  12. Doug Ross

    You can’t keep saying that Americans knew enough about the NSA Programs before the Snowden releases to make an informed decision on whether they were too invasive and then at the same time suggest that Snowden in despicable for releasing that information.

    The information Snowden released was unknown to all but a very few people, otherwise it wouldn’t be a crime to release it. I think there is plenty of NSA activity going on that even Obama doesn’t know about – whether by NSA keeping things under wraps or by Obama establishing a wall of plausible deniability.

    I think Jimmy Carter, an ex-president with access to more information than you and I have, strikes the right balance on this topic. “Does he view Snowden, now granted asylum in Russia, as a hero or a traitor? “There’s no doubt that he broke the law and that he would be susceptible, in my opinion, to prosecution if he came back here under the law,” he said. “But I think it’s good for Americans to know the kinds of things that have been revealed by him and others — and that is that since 9/11 we’ve gone too far in intrusion on the privacy that Americans ought to enjoy as a right of citizenship.”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Do you think Jimmy still has more access to current classified information that you or I? I don’t know about that….

      As for this:
      “You can’t keep saying that Americans knew enough about the NSA Programs before the Snowden releases to make an informed decision on whether they were too invasive and then at the same time suggest that Snowden in despicable for releasing that information.”

      Of course I can. What we knew before was the broad concept that telephone communications were being examined, in the aggregate, by algorithms that looked for patterns that pointed to terrorist collaboration.

      Snowden broke the rules by talking about specific collections of data from specific sources. He gave details about how the collection worked, and the names of the programs — things that no one needed to know in order to decide whether such processes were a good idea or not.

      Most of all, though, he carefully put out what he had in dribs and drabs to keep himself in the headlines and create a fatigue with the topic that made people sick of the programs he was going on and on about. He tapped on the same spot over and over until the irritation among the public was such that public officials had to act to make the irritant go away — which they’re doing by saying, “We’re not going to do that anymore.” You know, in the hope that everyone will STFU about it. Which is not a good reason for changing policy…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Oh, and I didn’t say all Americans knew we were doing these things. I said that people who paid attention knew it. People who preferred to pay all their attention to “Jersey Shore” and “American Idol” were less aware…

  13. Phillip

    “It is completely wrong for this country to change ANY policy in response to Edward Snowden’s actions”–Brad Warthen

    “It is completely wrong for this country to change ANY policy in the direction of erosion of civil liberties and freedom or to circumvent the Constitution as a result of Osama bin Laden’s actions.”–PB

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Tell you what — when we enact a policy that erodes civil liberties or circumvents the Constitution, get back to me and we’ll discuss that. Since that hasn’t happened, I’m not following your point. I mean, once you take that wordy passage out, you’re left with “It is completely wrong for this country to change ANY policy… as a result of Osama bin Laden’s actions.” And surely you wouldn’t assert that. A nation that doesn’t look for ways to prevent a guy from killing 3,000 of its citizens again would be a very self-destructive nation.

      But by “eroding civil liberties,” maybe you’re talking about the searches we have to submit to before boarding a plane. But I think most of us consider that a reasonable tradeoff, as much as we may grumble about it.

      The only person in all this who is circumventing the Constitution is Edward Snowden — taking it upon himself to disobey the laws and wreck the policies that the three branches of government set up by the Constitution (the duly elected president and representatives, the duly appointed and confirmed judges) have legally enacted. That’s about as clear a case of “circumventing” as I can think of.

      There’s an interesting side discussion we could have here. People in this country often speak of the Constitution as though it consisted of nothing but the Bill of Rights. They tend to ignore the main body of the document, which sets up the fundamental arrangements by which we govern ourselves. And THAT is what Snowden has circumvented.

  14. Doug Ross

    I also am struck by the tone of your writing on this issue. “This is an utter outrage.” When someone says something like that, I would expect that a majority of people would agree without much thought. But most people don’t aren’t outraged… or, if they are, they are outraged about the NSA activity and not Snowden. That probably indicates that there is a middle ground here where few people would be outraged. That would be some type of surveillance that was specific and backed by evidence versus the massive collection of data with no certainty that the data would or could be misused.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      The more specific the collection, the more it is an intrusion on privacy. When everything is being sifted for patterns, there is less intrusion. That’s one reason why the revelation that has concerned me most was the report that only about 30 percent of phone traffic is being sifted…

      1. Doug Ross

        For each piece of information released by Snowden are we to assume your response has been either “I knew that” or “I didn’t know that but I don’t think it is a problem”? How is it possible that so many other people (in fact the majority of people) would say “I didn’t know that and I am don’t think that the government should do that”?

        It kinda boils down to your affection for concepts and processes over the actual implementation. You can’t accept that the government might use the collected information for anything other than a pure purpose.

      2. Bryan Caskey

        So you’re conceding that there is an intrusion on privacy, but it’s not big enough to bother you, and the government has a counter-balancing interest in law-enforcement.

        Would you say that’s an unfair characterization of your position?

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I assume you’re addressing me.

          I don’t think there’s an intrusion on privacy in scanning through all phone communications looking for patterns. It’s kind of like a cop sitting on the side of the road watching thousands of cars go by, and paying no attention to any individual unless he sees someone speeding or driving recklessly. I suppose an extreme libertarian might protest, “That cop’s WATCHING me!” But I would not.

          I should pause here for a moment in this discussion of privacy. I want to be clear that I believe the court was completely wrong in Griswold — there is NO sweeping, fundamental RIGHT to privacy intended in the Constitution. (And I was pretty irritated the other night watching an old episode of “West Wing” in which all the main characters acted like a potential nominee for the court who agreed with me on this was some sort of outrageous barbarian. He was a bit of a jerk, but everything he said about there being no right to privacy beyond the specific instances laid out in the amendments was perfectly sound.)

          But even if you think there is, I fail to see where that “right” is abridged in the case of the NSA programs.

          I will add that while I don’t see a constitutional guarantee to privacy, there is a widely held desire for privacy among the American public, and it is appropriate for public officials to go to reasonable lengths to respect that wish. I just fail to see where these programs fail to respect that…

          1. Doug Ross

            “I don’t think there’s an intrusion on privacy in scanning through all phone communications looking for patterns. ”

            What kind of patterns? How do you find a terrorist based on his calling patterns alone? Describe a scenario that would not potentially involve innocent people being targeted erroneously.

            What they are really doing is starting with suspect X, getting his phone number, and then going at least two levels deep in all the phone calls made to and from that number. You don’t think that leads to innocent people coming under investigation? And what happens if through their analysis they come across non-terrorism related activity unrelated to the initial search? Is that sufficient grounds to investigate?

          2. Bryan Caskey

            I think the police officer watching traffic is an interesting and perhaps apt, analogy. I’m personally not bothered by the NSA going through the enormous database of all phone calls for various reasons, chief among them being that the amount of information is so large, it’s almost impossible to do. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s an effective use of the NSA’s time – but that’s their problem, not mine.

            I know exactly what episode of the West Wing you’re talking about. That’s the one where they select Mendoza, but he gets arrested by some small town sheriff for looking Hispanic, and then the sheriff ends up with egg on his face when it turns out he’s wrongfully arrested a Federal Judge. I think the guy that advocates no specific right to privacy is not picked for that specific reason, if I recall correctly.

            And I was addressing you, soldier.

          3. Brad Warthen Post author

            And actually, it wasn’t “exactly” that episode of “West Wing.” The whole story line of nominating Mendoza and shepherding the nomination through confirmation took several episodes — it was a big part of the first season (which I just finished watching), and in fact was considered the one big achievement of the administration’s first year (and the fact that it was their only victory was a cause of much chagrin in the West Wing).

            The one in which the “right to privacy” was discussed was the one in which Bartlet was going with the safe, middle-of-the-road nominee instead of Mendoza. But then two things happen — the outgoing justice shames the president for having failed to seriously consider Mendoza, and the memo or article that the intended nomination had written on privacy decades earlier causes the staff to go ballistic.

            The arrest of the nominee was an episode or two after that.

            But speaking of the former episode… the outgoing justice is played by the actor who was the executive editor of Lou Grant’s paper. Hadn’t seen him in a while. Anyway, he tells Bartlet that he had wanted to retire earlier, but wanted to wait until he would be replaced by a liberal.

            Because of that, he’s disgusted by Bartlet’s original choice, and says contemptuously, “I was waiting for a Democrat. Instead, I got YOU.”

            I found that scene appalling. Had I been in Bartlet’s shoes, I would have reacted in two ways:
            — First, I’d have thought, “Thank God this ideological hack — this obnoxious ideological hack — is not going to be on the Supreme Court any more.”
            — Second, I’d have never, ever considered for a moment nominating anyone that this guy saw as being like himself.

            But Bartlet does reconsider Mendoza. I like to think that we wasn’t guilted into it as a liberal being shamed for betraying the cause. I like to think that he was rising above the situation and considering Mendoza in spite of the person who had made him think about it. And there’s reason to interpret it that way. The president comes out of that meeting and just asks, seemingly out of curiosity, “Did we really consider Mendoza?” And he learns that Mendoza had sort of been given short shrift. His switch to deciding to nominate him then gradually proceeds from that point.

            Personally, I would not have nominated the other guy simply because he was personally as pompous and obnoxious as the outgoing justice. I would have made my decision in spite of his (in my view, correct) position on privacy, not because of it.

            1. Bryan Caskey

              Yeah, I guess they were probably multiple, different episodes. I have a pretty good recollection of the story line of The West Wing, but in my memory it all kind of merges together into one story.

              And the “soldier” comment wasn’t a movie reference. It was just me being a cornball.

  15. Phillip

    The premise of your question is flawed. Any changes in policy are not being implemented or even discussed “in response” to Snowden’s actions. They are being debated (and now, in some small way, modified) in response to both the executive and legislative branches of our government beginning to have some serious doubts about some aspects of the surveillance policies.

    Let’s accept your characterization of Snowden as “self-aggrandizing” I for one would not dispute that: I’m troubled by his recent “rockstar” appearances via satellite at such trendy gatherings as the SXSW festival in Austin and at “TedX” symposia.

    But this is all irrelevant to an evaluation of the metadata gathering policies and the like? You speak of “emotionalism” but only if we separate our opinion of Snowden from our inquiry into these policies are we truly being objective. To turn your question on its head, what WOULD be “disgusting,” to use your term, would be to refuse to consider a change in policy simply because we learned of many of these things due to the actions of a self-aggrandizing jerk who may indeed be, in a strictly legal sense, a traitor.

    Which brings me back around to that central contradiction that keeps popping up when you get worked up about Snowden. How can these policy changes be “in response” to Snowden’s actions if “the public knew about these programs before Snowden,” as you claim. You can’t have it both ways. Either Snowden revealed nothing critical and is therefore harmless, or he did reveal vital information that would not have come to light to the general public and because of this we are having this debate, whatever his own motivations (these nevertheless being irrelevant to the central question of the constitutionality of these surveillance practices).

    You are critical of the “sensationalism” and the fact that these revelations “created an emotional response among vast numbers of people who are not accustomed to thinking about national security matters.” Again, I see it differently. To me, the Patriot Act and the institutionalizing of an unprecedented surveillance apparatus in response to Osama bin Laden was based on “an emotional response—namely, fear, the most basic emotional response of all— among vast numbers of people who are not accustomed to thinking about constitutional matters or civil liberties.” You asked if I thought we should make no changes in policy in response to OBL, and I would say of course that’s not what I’m saying. But we have to move beyond the emotional fear response and accept that as a nation we do NOT have every tool available at our disposal to forestall every terrorist threat. We don’t have that luxury that non-liberal-democracies may have in that regard. This is the calm, non-emotional, courageous response we have to have as a nation. You want exceptionalism? THAT makes us an exceptional nation.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      You say, “we do NOT have every tool available at our disposal to forestall every terrorist threat,” and you’re right. Eventually, the terrorists will succeed in another major attack. They just have to get lucky once. For us to be successful, we have to outwit them every day. I find it stunning that there hasn’t been another 9/11.

      But while we can’t have a guarantee, I think rational people will take reasonable steps to do what they can to forestall the next attack. And the NSA measures fit have always seemed eminently reasonable to me.

      And about this “fear” thing… I have never experienced a moment of fear about terrorism. Not an an instant. And I sort of doubt that many of the people who have advocated these policies I support have ever felt such trepidation. And I get weary of people who oppose aggressively fighting terrorism insulting the courage of those with whom they disagree. It’s a tiresome meme.

      If 3,000 American noncombatants are killed in coordinated attacks, it is the duty of duly elected officials to do what they can to prevent it happening again. It has nothing to do with fear. It’s simply a rational response, and a case of fulfilling the responsibilities of the job of elected leader.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        As to “that central contradiction”… I’ve tried explaining that it is not a contradiction. Snowden yelled and screamed “fire” about the NSA programs until lots of people who hadn’t focused on them got stirred up.

        I don’t see how that’s a contradiction.

        There was a minority of people in the country who were aware of these programs — not because their basic existence was secret, but because few people focused on them. Among those who focused were people like me who thought the programs fine, and people who agreed with you that they undermined Constitutional guarantees. But people in the second category couldn’t get the rest of the public stirred up. Snowden got them stirred up, with a campaign that misrepresented and sensationalized what was going on. He was given an unprecedented media platform for doing this, day after day.

        And it had a harmful effect on this nation.

        And the reason I get so worked up about it is that it is an invitation for other people to break every oath they’ve ever taken, to betray their employers and their country, in the hope of also undermining sound policies and getting their way. And that is very, very dangerous.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Correction — that’s ONE reason I get worked up. There’s a bigger reason, that’s a little harder to explain. I should probably attempt a separate post on it sometime.

          The thing is… I see Snowden as an expression of something… I see him as symbolizing everything that’s wrong with our country today, in a way.

          As you know, or should know, few things distress me more than the virulent anti-government strain that has completely infected the political culture of South Carolina, and much of our national politics. To me, it arises from an impulse that is enormously destructive to the ties that bind us into a coherent, lawful, civilized society. I see something that goes far, far beyond “limited government,” to a virulent opposition to anything but the will of the radicalized individual.

          I see a generation or two of people coming of age with little sense of how they are connected to, and dependent upon, the other people around them. And I think this is eroding fundamental assumptions that are essential to civilization.

          Snowden is an extreme expression of this. One of the reasons I was so bowled over by that David Brooks column last year was that he expressed what I was concerned about so much better than I have been able to do. A couple of excerpts:

          According to The Washington Post, he has not been a regular presence around his mother’s house for years. When a neighbor in Hawaii tried to introduce himself, Snowden cut him off and made it clear he wanted no neighborly relationships. He went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton and the C.I.A., but he has separated himself from them, too.

          Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.

          If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

          This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme. You’re more likely to donate to the Ron Paul for president campaign, as Snowden did….

          … he is making everything worse.

          For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.

          He betrayed honesty and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity. He made explicit and implicit oaths to respect the secrecy of the information with which he was entrusted. He betrayed his oaths.

          He betrayed his friends. Anybody who worked with him will be suspect. Young people in positions like that will no longer be trusted with responsibility for fear that they will turn into another Snowden….

          Please go read the whole thing. I’m pushing the outside of the envelope on Fair Use already, and the rest of the column elaborates effectively on these points.

          I see centrifugal forces tearing us apart and causing us to rush away from each other. When I look at Snowden, I see that happening. And it’s very, very distressing.

          Does any of this make any sense?

      2. Kathryn Fenner

        Elected officials should not do what they can to prevent it from happening again. Declare martial law? Suspend habeas corpus, a la Gitmo?

        We are at far greater risk from drunk drivers and a well-armed populace than from terrorists at this time or any reasonable foreseeable future. If we are going to abridge rights, let’s go house to house and seize guns!

  16. Phillip

    Yes, I understand the connection you’re making to wider “anti-government” sentiments in parts of society. We’ll never agree on this, but re Brooks’ pop-psych diagnosis of Snowden (a genre that characterizes much of his writing), I would say it’s still irrelevant to the larger question, and a kind of misdirection.

    As for “fear,” it’s no insult. This country ( in contrast to many other parts of the world) has been so insulated from the effects of direct attack that the psychological wound from 9/11 was profound. Isn’t that the goal of asymmetrical warfare? We’ve never had to answer these kinds of questions before as a nation, except perhaps in the Civil War. It’s not anti-government to be concerned about creeping expansion of the surveillance state…it’s pro-government, in the sense of these programs seeing the light of day, being more subject to real judicial review (not a rubber-stamp secret court) and oversight by our elected officials.


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