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Three Theses On The Snowden Disclosures

1. The revelations by Edward Snowden published in the Guardian and elsewhere imply that the National Security Agency records virtually every electronic communication of persons in the US. This mass surveillance is to be opposed.

Members of the Obama administration, after first denying that the NSA collects anything at all from “US persons,” have subsequently said that only metadata is collected, and that a communication is only investigated further under special circumstances which are narrowly drawn. However, in the first place collection of the metadata alone is an invasion of privacy which can easily reveal personal information about the communicant. In the second place two 2009 Justice Department memos detailing the special circumstances show that they are so extensive as sto allow virtually any communication to be investigated after all. (It is possible in principle that reforms of the guidelines subsequent to 2009 have ameliorated this situation, but one must assume that they have not absent explicit clarification from the administration.)

Members of the administration have also said that the program is necessary to prevent terrorism, and have claimed that as many as 50 plots have been disrupted. However, Senators Wyden and Udall, who have access to classified documents, have said that they know of no terrorist plots that could not have been thwarted by conventional investigative means. Moreover, there have been a number of attempted or executed terrorist acts (other than those instigated by the FBI in sting operations) that have occurred in spite of the NSA surveillance. (A list of those that have occurred since September 11, 2001 was read by a speaker at the July 4 Restore the Fourth rally in Washington, D.C.)

The surveillance is to be opposed on constitutional grounds in that it patently violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution against unreasonable searches, It is to be opposed on practical grounds in that it can be used, and most likely has been used, against nonviolent protestors, collecting dossiers for potential use against them in ways such as prejudicing potential employers or compromising applications for benefits.

Those who are indifferent to this issue because they do not believe they “have done anything wrong” are displaying poor citizenship because they are also indifferent to the US Constitution. And some activity that they pursue that is presently legal may not always be so, in which case they are at risk of being labeled a potential miscreant with respect to the activity in question.

More subtly, some appear lukewarm at best to active opposition to the surveillance in contexts where other ills of the US are not explicitly addressed. Or I take it that this is what one FDLer means in saying, “focusing entirely on government surveillance, or particularly on NSA surveillance, misses 90% or more of the whole story” (comment #59 here). But refusal to participate when the opposition is predicated in such contexts would reflect an unrealistic attitude toward the possibility of change. To take an example, the mass demonstrations in Washington during the Vietnam era that were organized around the single issue of ending the Vietnam War had some effect in doing so, but did not prevent participants from acting on other issues in other venues.

2. Neither Snowden’s personal characteristics or motivation nor those of the journalists that have published his material are relevant to the issue stated in Thesis 1.

Of course, the government’s claim that Snowden not only broke the law, but violated the Espionage Act of the World War I era, will be viewed as excessive by most people beyond the leaders of the intelligence agencies and their enablers in the relevant Congressional committees; still, many believe he committed a “crime” and therefore should be punished. I will not argue against them here (although I do disagree), but I insist that this view should not stand in the way of opposing the surveillance he disclosed in accordance with Thesis 1. This wholesale sweeping up of the electronic communications of every person in the country is a much larger issue than that of what should happen to a single individual.

Beyond the cries of “traitor,” there have been slightly less unsubtle assertions that Snowden has negative personality characteristics, in particular “narcissism.” But again, suppose he is a narcissist: what does that have to do with the importance of the information he has provided?

From another direction, the eyebrows of some at FDL have been raised because Snowden has betrayed libertarian tendencies, which are naturally anathema to progressives. But again, what does that have to do with the importance of the information he has provided?

But also, the point applies equally to those who lionize Snowden as a cult figure. The idolatry has reached the point of the deported Russian spy Anna Chapman tweeting a suggestion that they marry. I’m sure Snowden is gratified by all this attention, but he himself said in the original interview with the Guardian that he was neither a traitor nor a hero, and that the point was his message.

A corollary is that the tabloidal fascination with the cat-and-mouse game of Snowden’s flight from US authority and the doggedness of the latter’s pursuit has grown beyond all bounds. Just today a post on the FDL front page concerned a mere rumor that a deal had been reached for Snowden to secure asylum in one country; it collected over 100 comments (a good half of them subsequent to information coming to light that the rumor was false). What does this have to do with the massive surveillance that he has said is his primary concern?

3. Theories that Snowden is some sort of fake and that his revelations are meant to divert our attention from other matters are to be rejected.

In mid-June Naomi Wolf posted her “creeping concern that the NSA leaker is not who he purports to be,” and suggested that his story was actually inspired by the government in order to instill fear into people that their every move was being watched. Her view is based largely on her subjective impressions of his manner in the Guardian interview. Her post was promptly re-published by several fringe websites like

That idea did not get much traction, but a number of FDLers have suggested an alternative, that Snowden is part of a “limited hangout.” If the standard understanding of that phrase is meant, he has revealed tidbits of secret information in order to distract attention, while the intelligence establishment guards much more explosive material which was in danger of being revealed. And indeed, there surely must be more information that Snowden has not yet revealed, such as the undocumented assertions of Bush era whistle-blower Russ Tice, that Supreme Court justices and even the potential Illinois Senator Barack Obama were surveilled.

Another idea expressed by one FDLer is that the Obama administration orchestrated the revelations in order to take attention away from what were the more serious (to Obama) current scandals over Banghazi, the AP, and the IRS (see comment #2 here).

A component of both of these theories has been the position that Snowden has not really revealed anything that was not already known “to those who were paying attention.”

However, the first point to be said against the theories is that the proponents have not shown that they already knew the graphic details of the programs going under the names PRISM, FAIRVIEW, etc. that Snowden has spelled out.

But most importantly, these theories are betrayed as unpersuasive, if not absurd, by the fact that the government has pursued the person who they say is its collaborator to so obsessive a degree that it has now gotten the continent of South America angry with it for interfering with the travel of one President on the strength of a rumor that Snowden was with him. (The only way these theories could be saved is with a hypothesis that the false story was orchestrated by some element within the government that is not under the administration’s control and is unknown to it. But that is far-fetched.)

No, Snowden is who he says he is, and his information is what he says it is. It is up to us to do something about it.

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E. F. Beall

E. F. Beall