Simple Approaches, Complicated Issues

There is a very robust debate going on between people who defend the behavior of Edward Snowden and (especially) Glenn Greenwald, and those (most recently, Michael Kinsley) who see Greenwald, Snowden et al as dangerously naive.

Martin Longman weighs in on the debate at Political Animal: 

Too often, it seems to me, Greenwald and his strong supporters behave as if the government deserves to be damaged and that our national security ought to suffer, even though all Americans are put at risk as a result. The risk to Americans is not something that can just be shrugged off as if it were indisputable that the country has gained a net-benefit from every single disclosure of classified information.

The reason that Greenwald is getting the better of the argument isn’t because his principles are clearly superior, but because the government lacks credibility. The overall effect of the disclosures has been beneficial, at least so far, because nothing catastrophic has resulted and we now have greater knowledge about what our government has been doing, which is already leading to reforms.

But none of this relieves journalistic enterprises of the responsibility to weigh the risks and benefits of disclosing classified information, nor does it completely vindicate either Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, who both leaked far more information than was necessary to make their points.

There are no heroes here. Not among the government snoops who vastly exceeded what should be permissible in a free and democratic society, and not among the scolds who took it upon themselves to release massive amounts of classified information.

We need credible and effective systemic oversight mechanisms. Otherwise, we are left to depend upon the judgement of self-righteous whistleblowers and their enablers who see the world only as black and white, and who have never considered whether even virtuous  ends justify their chosen means.


Family Fights

We are a weird family. I should just admit it.

You want examples?

Several years ago, my eldest granddaughter–then 13– interrupted a lively dinner discussion by our extended family, saying “Stop it! Just stop it! All this family talks about is politics and I’m sick of it!” I apologized and said we’d talk about anything she wanted. What did she want to discuss? “School uniforms. I don’t think we should have to wear uniforms.”

Not long after 9-11, when our daughter was still on IPS’ School Board, she and my lawyer son disagreed about encouraging schoolchildren to recite the Pledge. He cited Barnette v. Board of School Commissioners of West Virginia; her Christmas gift to him that year was The Story of Our Flag.

And so it goes–at least in our family.

Most recently, my two younger sons have been arguing about Edward Snowden. On Facebook, my (very liberal and idealistic) middle son approvingly posted the New York Times editorial arguing that Snowden should get clemency; his brother (the lawyer) shot back with Fred Kaplan’s article for Salon, Why Snowden Won’t (and Shouldn’t) Get Clemency.  That led to a spirited exchange, to put it mildly.

Each one called and tried to get me to weigh in on his side.

In other families, I am told, children call their mothers (when they do) to ask for money, or to report on life events, or even to ask advice.  Mine call to talk politics and argue policy.

For what it’s worth, I agree with my lawyer son on this one. As Kaplan–like me, a foe of NSA domestic spying– notes in his article, had Snowden only disclosed information about domestic surveillance, leniency might be appropriate. But he did much more than that. He disclosed information having nothing to do with domestic spying, or even spying on our allies. He disclosed information about intelligence gathering practices that are not “illegal, immoral or improper”–information useful to the Taliban and Iran, among others.

Kaplan quotes Snowden telling the South China Morning Post that he took his job with the express intention of gaining access to NSA information–rebutting the assumption that  what he learned on the job so distressed him that he decided to broadcast what he’d found. He only stayed on the job for three months– just long enough to get what he’d come for. (He also lied to some 25 co-workers, telling them he needed their logons and passwords as part of his system administrator duties. Predictably, those co-workers were subsequently fired.)

There were also his glowing remarks about the “commitment to human rights” shown by Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, his praise of Hong Kong’s devotion to freedom of speech, and his expressed intent to share the pilfered documents with “every country where the NSA had operated.”

Someone who really wanted to shine a light on government misconduct–to engage in the time-honored tactic of civil disobedience–would not have taken refuge in countries whose interests are inimical to ours. He would have stayed in the U.S., made his case, and accepted the consequences of his actions.

Had Snowden limited his disclosures to the NSA’s clearly unlawful domestic activities, had he remained in the U.S. to argue that his actions were in service of the Constitution and Rule of Law, he would be a whistleblower entitled to our consideration.

Bradley Manning was a whistleblower. Snowden is not, and the fact that his disclosures will end up doing some collateral good really doesn’t change that.

My lawyer son’s analogy is apt: if someone goes on a shooting spree and kills two innocent people and one murderous son-of-a-bitch, the fact that he rid the town of the SOB doesn’t excuse the murder of the other two.

I hate taking sides when my kids have an argument, but sometimes, it’s unavoidable. At least they aren’t arguing about who Mom loves best…