Edward Snowden Is Not the Issue

Focusing Snowden distracts us from the NSA. The NSA loves that.

Whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor* makes for great talking-head debates. Why did he do it? Will he get away with it? What’s he going to do next?

Let me ask a better question: Why do you care? You’re not going to invite Snowden over for dinner or offer him a job, so why do you need to know whether he’s a good person or not? On the other hand, if you’re planning to keep living in the United States, or in any country under the influence of the United States, how the NSA might be spying on you is important. That’s where your attention should be.

I know, I know. Making Snowden the issue lets journalists interview Snowden’s attractive girlfriend (an ABC News article — with picture, naturally — describes her as “an acrobatic pole performer“), her father, and even some woman who lives next door to his mother. (He “seemed like a nice young man”.)

Pole dancer!

Great stuff for ratings, but completely beside the point — what the logicians call an ad hominem fallacy. It’s also standard operating procedure when anybody blows the whistle on wrong-doing in high places: First make the whistleblower the issue, and then assassinate his or her character.

Leaving pole dancers out of it for a few minutes, let’s review the important questions:

Are the programs Snowden described real? Yes. So far the government is not denying the authenticity of the documents Snowden has leaked. Much of it they have verified.

Are they as invasive as the Guardian article made them sound? Unclear. As the techies look at the leaked PRISM documents, many are concluding that one key slide was misinterpreted. It doesn’t really mean that the NSA has a pipe into the central servers at Google and Facebook, from which it can grab whatever it wants at will. There seems to be more process involved than that.

On the other hand, AP reports:

But interviews with more than a dozen current and former government and technology officials and outside experts show that, while Prism has attracted the recent attention, the program actually is a relatively small part of a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort.

CNET reports the NSA admitting in a congressional briefing that their analysts can listen to phone calls on their own authority, just as Snowden said he could. But other sources are saying that also is based on a misunderstanding. Julian Sanchez does a good job of sorting out what we know and don’t know.

Legally speaking, the analysts don’t have carte blanche. In other words, this isn’t “warrantless wiretapping” so much as “general warrant wiretapping.” They can’t just tap any old call or read any old e-mail they strikes them as “suspicious.” They’ve got to be flagging content for interception because they believe it’s covered by a particular §702 authorization, and observe whatever “targeting procedures” the FISA Court has established for the relevant authorization.

On the third hand, it’s not clear who is enforcing those rules or whether the analysts ever break them.

Are they legal? It depends on what the meaning of is is.  If you mean: “Can the government point to laws and procedures that they are following?”, then the answer seems to be yes. But if the question is whether those laws and procedures fulfill the Fourth Amendment‘s guarantee of “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”, I would say no.

Are the safeguards protecting the privacy of innocent people working? We don’t yet have an egregious example of them not working. But if it makes you feel safe that a secret court has to approve these programs, you should read what retired Judge Nancy Gertner says:

As a former Article III judge, I can tell you that your faith in the FISA Court is dramatically misplaced.

The judges appointed to this court aren’t representative of the judiciary as a whole, and chosen precisely because they are sympathetic to government power.

it’s not boat rockers. … To suggest that there is meaningful review it seems to me is an illusion.

Congressional oversight also looks more impressive on paper than it seems to be in practice. WaPo reporter Bruce Gellman said on Face the Nation:

Aside from the members of the intelligence committees, there is something near zero members of Congress who have a member of their staff who is cleared to know anything about this.

He described a “locked room” where Congressmen can go to read unbelievably complicated documents for themselves, “and the number of members who do that is zero.”

What’s the effect on democracy if those safeguards fail? The country would effectively be ruled by the people who know everybody else’s secrets. How many congressmen could vote against them? What president could shut them down?

Do these programs really catch terrorists? I’m impressed that Al Franken says they do. But I’m not impressed that we have to take other people’s word for it. It’s like the torture debate: The government can say it works, but if we’re not cleared to look at the evidence, then why should we believe them?

And none of these claims assess how much domestic terrorist recruitment is aided by Americans’ sense that they are subjects of a government beyond their control or understanding.

Why do they have to be secret? Senator Tester denies that Snowden’s leaks harmed national security. And it’s hard to imagine a terrorist cell that wouldn’t already be thinking about people tapping its phones and reading its email.

Some details need to be secret — plans for the H-bomb, dates for the D-Day invasion, and so on. But the government’s interpretations of the laws should never be secret. The American people are owed a map of the rights they have lost, and at every wall that keeps them from knowing more, we are owed an explanation of why we can’t know more. We haven’t gotten that yet.

*Notice what a hero/traitor dichotomy assumes. If what the government is doing is evil, then Snowden could be both a hero and a traitor.

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  • Dan  On June 18, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    The consequences to Snowden of his actions, and the public’s reaction to both his actions and the consequences could directly impact the action or inaction of the next potential whistleblower. In that sense, how the public views Snowden is relevant.

    I don’t personally think the discussion of Snowden takes away from the discussion of the government policies he exposed. There is room for both in the news cycle.


  • By Dissidents | The Weekly Sift on June 17, 2013 at 10:58 am

    […] So no matter how many bright shiny objects the establishment press tries to distract you with — look! his girl friend is a pole dancer! — keep your eye on the ball. The issue that matters is the NSA, not Snowden. I flesh those ideas out, and cover what else we learned about the NSA this week, in Edward Snowden Is Not the Issue. […]

  • By Are you a “news” addict? | The Weekly Sift on July 1, 2013 at 8:53 am

    […] spins out of a legitimate news story, but isn’t news. As I explained in the previous Sift, Edward Snowden is Not the Issue. So far, Snowden has told us a bunch of stuff about NSA spying that the government should have told […]

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