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Marshall on Snowden


Josh Marshall’s reply to John Cassidy yesterday reminds me of his earlier piece on Snowden, which I meant to write about at the time. Both of Marshall’s posts are quite odd; they read, to me, as though they’re incomplete, with the paragraph that contains the central argument excised for some reason. My own views on Snowden more or less track the views that Rob expressed the other day, specifically:

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 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.

In short: whatever his motivations, he did something good and necessary for democracy, and while I can’t get too worked up about the charges against him and the effort to extradite him, I wish him godspeed in his efforts to avoid a Manning-esque fate.

Marshall defends taking a dim view of Snowden, but his posts are both maddeningly vague about the precise content of that dim view. The first post focuses on the case against Manning, while noting but downplaying some pretty major differences between the two cases. The closest thing to a concrete argument about Snowden is found here:

The Snowden case is less clear to me (than Manning). At least to date, the revelations seem more surgical. And the public definitely has an interest in knowing just how we’re using surveillance technology and how we’re balancing risks versus privacy. The best critique of my whole position that I can think of is that I think debating the way we balance privacy and security is a good thing and I’m saying I’m against what is arguably the best way to trigger one of those debates.

But it’s more than that. Snowden is doing more than triggering a debate. I think it’s clear he’s trying to upend, damage – choose your verb – the US intelligence apparatus and policies he opposes. The fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone doubts that narrow point. But he’s not just opening the thing up for debate. He’s taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me that’s a betrayal.

The first paragraph here seems exactly right. The second paragraph is a mess: there’s speculation about motives, which I don’t care about because I’m not on Snowden’s jury, nor am I trying to figure out whether he deserves a medal or not. “The Fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself” seems in obvious contradiction to the point made in the previous paragraph: if the public really does have a democratic interest (and, I’d say, democratic right) to the knowledge necessary to deliberate about the proper scope of government surveillance of citizens, that the law makes revealing such programs to the public is pretty clearly unjustifiable. If public knowledge of regimes of surveillance undermines those regimes, perhaps they’re not a policy option consistent with democracy.

In yesterday’s reply to Cassidy, who made an argument about the ideological reaction to Snowden amongst elite insider journalists, Marshall replies by doubling down on a theme from his first post—that his generic sense of the constitutional patriotism informs his anti-Snowden views:

My reaction to Snowden isn’t tied to my being a journalist. If anything it’s in spite of it. It’s as part of this national community, as someone who buys into its basic structures, for all their problems. I’m a part of this club. And I try to keep that in mind whether I like what the club is doing at a given time or not. As I wrote in the first piece, I don’t like everything the US military does. But I do think there should be a US military. I also think it requires a significant amount of secrecy to operate. So I don’t think I can just wash my hands of it and say it has nothing to do with me just because I’m not part of the chain of command. When innocent civilians are killed in Pakistan or Yemen, I’m on the line for that just as I benefit from its protection in numerous ways.

Insofar as there’s an argument relevant to Snowden here, it would seem to be an argument against any leaks whatsoever, as long as one supports the legitimacy of a US military and security force in the abstract. But that’s apparently not what he wants:

The idea that one person with a conscience is a majority is a powerful one – it’s at the heart of our civilization. But when you take that step you throw yourself on the judgment of your fellow citizens and history who will either vindicate you or won’t. There’s no A for effort and it’s not the thought that counts. I don’t think I’m under any obligation to sign on with this guy no matter how much his conscience is inflamed or how much he’s risked. And no it doesn’t have anything to do with guilt about what he’s revealed or the failings of journalism or anything else.

Once again, I agree completely with this: taking the step Snowden did is a risky one, and could easily be, upon reflection, an unjustifiable choice, depending on the nature of the information linked. And indeed, the degree to which a leaker felt himself bound by conscience isn’t the ultimate standard by which a law breaker should be judged. Just because you think your lawbreaking is for good, moral, democracy-enhancing reasons doesn’t make it so. But this isn’t an argument against Snowden, it’s throat-clearing that might serve as a preface to an argument against Snowden, and nothing of substance follows it. Indeed, the only time in either of these posts Marshall considers the specifics, he seems to briefly find himself in general agreement with the notion that the leaks in this case are valuable.

In both of these posts, Marshall seems to think that his constitutional patriotism does a lot of the heavy lifting in explaining his anti-Snowden sentiments. It isn’t at all obvious to me that this is true: one can, in a general sense, support and believe in the legitimacy of a state, and also recognize that that broad sense of legitimacy doesn’t mean its own mechanisms for self-correction will always function without an assist from those acting outside the rules of the system from time to time. The content of Marshall’s anti-Snowden sentiment remain mysterious, despite two posts attempting to explain them.


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