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Brief Snowden Thoughts

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Because I feel like I should have an opinion…

  • The likely legality of the NSA programs notwithstanding, I think that the Snowden’s leaks about the programs can be treated as genuine, socially productive whistle-blowing; if the judiciary and the legislature and the executive can’t be counted on to sufficiently monitor one another, then surely the media has some responsibility, and the reaction of both the public and state suggests that these programs are something that should have been discussed at greater length.
  • I’m rather less impressed by the leaks regarding U.S. cyber-warfare targeting plans and U.S. hacking efforts against China. This seems to me to be classic intelligence/defense statecraft, something that lies firmly within the prerogative of the executive, and an area in which secrecy is appropriate and entirely defensible.  Regardless of Snowden’s motives, I’m reasonably comfortable calling his leaks on these points “espionage,” without endorsing any specific legal approach or punishment.
  • On the other hand, I’m also not particularly impressed by arguments that Snowden’s “civil disobedience” regarding the first set of leaks requires that he throw himself upon the pointy-end of the national security state. If he can make his point and run, that doesn’t diminish his point, even if we can imagine some sort of “Tumblr from a Birmingham Jail” arising from his prosecution and imprisonment.
  • That said, the manner of his avoidance of U.S. state apprehension matters, and it’s frankly troubling that he’s seen fit to accept (tacit) assistance from at least a couple of states (Russia and the PRC, setting aside Venezuela and Ecuador), that operate domestic security services that are considerably more vile on a day-by-day basis than the worst behavior of the NSA and the FBI.  If Snowden had run down a family of four while escaping unjust FBI pursuit, he’d be held to account; it’s entirely reasonable to assess his principled objection to NSA surveillance in context of his willingness to accept the  (tacit) assistance of the Russian and Chinese security services.
  • The “War on Leakers” is a dreadful failure, and to the extent that the modern national security state can be taken to task by low level employees such as Snowden and Bradley Manning, it cannot maintain its current stance towards secrecy. There will always be discontents, there will always be people willing to listen to them, and given the decentralized structure of modern media and communications these people will always be able to find one another.  The national security state needs to develop an entirely different paradigm (there, I said it) for managing secrecy, or else these incidents will recur, and recur, and recur.
  • I can’t see what Glenn Greenwald et al are supposed to have done wrong in this case.  As far as I can tell the worst sins that Greenwald can possibly have committed involve an excessive sense of self-importance and an exaggerated sense of indignation.  Every big journalist has the former, and every committed activist requires the latter.
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