Edward Snowden, who last week informed the world of massive data-mining operations by the US National Security Agency, is not a “true whistle-blower,” is a “narcissist,” “is putting American lives at risk,” is “uneducated,” “is speaking from an unfriendly country,” or my favorite (as stated in an FDL diary the other day before the mods took it down), is a “stinking traitor pussy.” Such are the accusations I’ve seen made against him over the past few days. Maybe you’ve seen others. (Wonkette: it’s only a matter of time before he’s accused of being gay [i.e., as if there were something wrong with that], since in entering upon his new existence he left a hot girl-friend.)

And of course, he must be prosecuted.

If you want defense against these accusations you are in the wrong place. My concern is, rather, to ask how much this focus on Snowden’s alleged deficiencies will distract attention from the substance of what he revealed: that NSA collects so-called metadata for every telephone call routed through Verizon (and, presumably, other carriers); and that it in some way has access to all internet traffic routed through the major ISPs. Ron Fournier, for one, says that asking whether Snowden is a traitor or a hero (as some say) is the wrong question when compared with:

Are the two programs revealed by Snowden legal and constitutional?

Are the programs effective? The government says yes, but most Americans don’t trust government. The Obama administration claims National Security Agency spying helped foil a plot in New York, but that claim has been convincingly disputed.

What else is the government doing to invade our privacy? Until a few days ago, paranoids were people who claimed Washington had cast a vast electronic net over our communications. Who isn’t a bit paranoid now?

Why did the U.S. government for years debunk what they called a myth about the National Security Agency seizing electronic data from millions of Americans?

Why did the leader of the U.S. intelligence community mislead Congress in March by answering a question about the program in the “least untruthful manner” — a phrase that would make George Orwell cringe.

Why do Democratic lawmakers who criticized President Bush for exploiting the post-9/11 Patriot Act now defend President Obama for curbing civil liberties?

Why do Republicans who defended Bush now chastise Obama for ruthlessly fighting terrorists?

Rather than fierce oversight, why did the White House and congressional leaders restrict full knowledge of the programs to a few elites, and stage, for the rest of Congress, Potemkin briefings?

Why does a secret federal court almost always side with the government’s requests to seize information.

Why didn’t the president find a way before the leaks to tell the public in general terms what he was doing and why? Obama ran on a pledge of government transparency, opposed Bush-era surveillance tactics, and denounced the “false choice” between security and liberty.

You might ask different questions (for instance, are the programs really used against terrorism, or rather to monitor Occupy or other non-violent dissenters?), but here I myself want to ask: How much is the hero versus traitor issue taking attention away from asking questions like them? At least at this point the answer appears to be: not too much.

It’s true that the political establishment is circling the wagons on this one. The Obama administration, as embodied in the good Generals Clapper and Alexander (Directors of National Security and the NSA itself, respectively), has testified before Congressional Committees to the effect that whatever NSA is doing “is essential to America’s security.” (It is worth noting here that no one is denying the essence of Snowden’s revelations, just details such as his peripheral claim that he could tap anyone’s telephone that he wished.) The leaders of both houses of Congress and of the relevant committees have not disagreed, to say the least. Talking heads on the major MSM outlets have called for prosecution. (The irrepressible Rep. Peter King, R-NY, does them one better: he wants to prosecute the journalists who published the material as well.)

And it is not necessary to malign Snowden in order to change the subject; one can make him the object of something like a personality cult instead. Thus, for example, Reuters gives us this piece on his life before getting into the security field (h/t TarheelDem). Or one can change the subject by focusing on the jilted girl-friend Lindsay Mills, as in this one from WaPo on how devastated she is by her loss.

(BTW Mills is said in that article to have known nothing of Snowden’s plans on the issue at hand. If I am correct the government is not going to take that at face value, so that the FBI is going to rake her over the coals.)

But for all that, Fournier’s questions are being asked:

*As to effectiveness, the widely cited (including by Gen. Alexander at the hearing yesterday) case of Najibullah Zazi’s foiled plot to bomb the New York subways is disputed in the link Fournier gives and in this Guardian article (h/t fatster), although to be sure the point has not been noted in the MSM coverage of Alexander’s appearance.

*On Tuesday the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Clapper, Alexander, SecDef Chuck Hagel, AG Eric Holder, and FBI Head Robert Mueller, asserting that the Verizon metadata surveillance program violates its 1st and 4th Amendment rights as a Verizon customer. This one will be hard to dismiss over some technicality.

*Also on Tuesday, Google news reports (h/t fatster), “a coalition of Internet and civil liberties groups launched a campaign … protesting the huge US online surveillance program.” The coalition includes Mozilla (which produces the Firefox browser), the ACLU, Greenpeace USA, and “more than 80 other organizations or companies.” Their effort includes the website StopWatching.us, a call for Congress to investigate, and an online petition.

*As reported a couple of days ago, a CBS poll says that 58% disapprove of this type of surveillance of ordinary (i.e., not suspected of terrorism) Americans.

Memo to O: Mr. President, do you really think that this tide will subside just because you send some generals to tell lies to Congressional committees?

And more shoes may yet drop. (Actually, Snowden dropped one this morning, telling the South China Morning Post that the US has been hacking computers in Hong Kong and mainland China since 2009, although it’s not clear that the revelation will have much of an effect here in the US, as opposed to in China.)

Stay tuned.

Update 8:00 PM Eastern Fatster’s round-up tonight has some excellent entries on surveillance.

Update 6/14 9:30 AM Eastern
The premise of this post is that the government’s method of distracting attention from Snowden’s message is to focus on Snowden, but it increasingly looks like the “new information” late yesterday that Syria has used chemical weapons and decision to arm the opposition (i.e., openly rather than covertly, as was already being done) is the classic trick of starting a war in order to distract attention from domestic problems, in this case the NSA scandal. (On the merits of the accusation against Syria, see b at MOA; h/t CTuttle.)

E. F. Beall

E. F. Beall