I have thought from early on that the revelation of the government’s massive surveillance operation is a good thing and little that has happened in the past few days has altered that opinion. Already, we are seeing some good coming out of Edward Snowden’s revelations: Google is asking to publish more information; a bipartisan group of Senators want this dragged out into the open; the ACLU is suing. The result of all this will be the very transparency and debate that Obama claims to want (but really doesn’t).
And it should go this way because the reassurance of “trust us” simply isn’t going to cut it. Let’s assume, for the moment, that the safeguards for our data are in place that information can only be obtained on a court order. Fine. But let’s consider the history of the IRS: political persecutions, “seizure fever”, overzealous prosecutions, agents abusing their privelege to snoop into the financial records of celebrities and neighbors. Let’s consider the history of COINTELPRO. The fact is that the government’s investigatory powers have a history of being abused. This is not a hypothetical. This is not some paranoid Glenn Beck fever dream. Abuses have happened; abuses are happening. You don’t have to be a crazy libertarian to be worried that a secret program with the power to look at our electronic data has a massive potential for abuse.
Given the overwhelming case for great transparency, the defenders of Obama are focusing their attention on the leaker himself. Snowden, of course, is being hailed as a hero in many quarters. Despite my gratitude for the leak, I’m not prepared to proclaim Snowden a hero quite yet. I am reserving judgement until we know what was revealed, to whom and for what reason.
However, the effort to demonize him is also running full force. It can be as mild as David Brooks’ bizarre psychoanalysis to as heavy as Jeffrey Toobin’s accusation of “sabotage” (although Snowden didn’t actually sabotage anything or break anything) all the way to several prominent senators accusing him of treason.
The treason charge is, by far, the most troubling. As Dylan Matthews point out, treason is actually defined in the Constitution:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.
Snowden obviously didn’t levy war on the United States. And “aid and comfort” is awfully difficult to prove. For example, the Rosenbergs were not charged with treason for giving our atomic secrets to the Soviet Union because we technically weren’t at war with them. Neither Hanssen nor Ames were charged with treason. So while it’s likely that Snowden broke the law, calling him a “traitor” is a bit hyperbolic given what we know.
(Of course, one thing to keep in mind every time the Administration or their apologists talk about how crazy Snowden is: this crazy person had access to top secret information. In fact about 500,000 people have top secret clearance right now.)
Why am I splitting this hair? Because I think it’s important to shine a light on what people like Diane Feinstein and John Bolton and and Bill Nelson and others consider treason. They seem to be defining it as crossing the will of the President. This isn’t about leaks. As Alex noted last week, the Administration was more than happy to leak classified information to the makers of Zero Dark Thirty when it suited their purposes. Just this week, they leaked info about disrupting al-Qaeda’s online magazine. And you really absolutely must read this piece by Jack Schaefer:
Yet even as the insults pile up and the amateur psychoanalysis intensifies, keep in mind that Snowden’s leak has more in common with the standard Washington leak than should make the likes of Brooks, Simon and Cohen comfortable. Without defending Snowden for breaking his vow to safeguard secrets, he’s only done in the macro what the national security establishment does in the micro every day of the week to manage, manipulate and influence ongoing policy debates. Keeping the policy leak separate from the heretic leak is crucial to understanding how these stories play out in the press.
Secrets are sacrosanct in Washington until officials find political expediency in either declassifying them or leaking them selectively. It doesn’t really matter which modern presidential administration you decide to scrutinize for this behavior, as all of them are guilty. For instance, President George W. Bush’s administration declassified or leaked whole barrels of intelligence, raw and otherwise, to convince the public and Congress making war on Iraq was a good idea. Bush himself ordered the release of classified prewar intelligence about Iraq through Vice President Dick Cheney and Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby to New York Times reporter Judith Miller in July 2003.
After recalling a number of incidents where Obama and his minions have leaked classified info for their own purposes, he concludes:
The willingness of the government to punish leakers is inversely proportional to the leakers’ rank and status, which is bad news for someone so lacking in those attributes as Edward Snowden. But as the Snowden prosecution commences, we should question his selective prosecution. Let’s ask, as Isikoff did of the Obama administration officials who leaked to Woodward, why Snowden is singled out for punishment when he’s essential done what the insider dissenters did when they spoke with Risen and Lichtblau in 2005 about an invasive NSA program. He deserves the same justice and the same punishment they received.
We owe Snowden a debt of gratitude for restarting—or should I say starting?—the public debate over the government’s secret but “legal” intrusions into our privacy. His leaks, filtered through the Guardian and the Washington Post, give us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to place limits on our power-mad government.
This isn’t about the leaks. This isn’t about security. If we had really caught a bunch of terrorist with PRISM, you can bet your bottom dollar that Obama would be leaking details about PRISM to the media: probably more details than Snowden has leaked. So spare us the lectures about how leaking secure information is treason.
No, this about loyalty. This is about only leaking information that the Administration thinks should be leaked and nothing else. Controlling the flow of classified information is, of course, part of the President’s job. But when that information is leaked to the American people for their supposed benefit, it may be a crime but it is not treason. Treason is a crime against the nation, not against the President. And the people who are screaming treason and want Snowden tied up and shot are conflating the two, subscribing to the belief that the President is the country.
Even if we posit that Snoweden is cuckoo, his actions are enabling people who aren’t to make some changes that just might protect our privacy. These actions would not be taking place without the leak. Is that so bad? Is that betrayal? Is that treason?
Only if you worship the Cult of the Presidency.
Update: The latest information is that Snowden is talking to the Chinese press and has told them that the US is hacking Chinese sites. If he is revealing secret information to them, then Snowden is committing espionage for a foreign power, similar to the Rosenbergs or Hannsen. That’s why I was reluctant to call him a hero.
That’s still not technically treason. And it’s worth noting that the accusations of treason were leveled at Snowden for revealing this information to the American public long before any meeting with China. So good on him for revealing this information to us; shame on him if he is revealing technical details to China as well.