Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

thescroll_header

Edward Who? The Real Story Is the Spying

A response to Liel Leibovitz

Print Email
In this handout photo provided by The Guardian, Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong.(The Guardian via Getty Images)

My esteemed colleague Liel Leibovitz has graced these pages with a complaint against Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden, to which I must respond. The anti-Snowden camp, bipartisan as it may be, is in my view willing to throw away two main tenets of democracy—consent, and a critical stance vis a vis the government—such that it is unclear what these security measures will have left to protect.

Many have argued that the information the NSA now possesses through its spying tactics is information that many share throughout the day willingly with countless persons and corporations. “The NSA’s alleged spying extends no further than the reams of data each of us voluntarily provides to major corporations every hour of every day for the explicit purpose of use in advertising,” argues Leibovitz. This argument is both incorrect—I don’t tend to upload my Verizon phone calls to Google—and problematic, insofar as it hinges on the idea that because I sometimes consent to something, therefore, I may never not consent to it under different circumstances. Imagine if we made this argument about sex: because one consents to share intimacy with a person who has provided a service (perhaps, paid for an expensive dinner), therefore, it is ok to roofie said person and rape them while they are unconscious. Because, well, they did consent that other time, seems to be the logic. And isn’t this exactly what happened with the NSA—we didn’t even know we were being spied on, so how could we have consented?

There are scenarios in which one chooses to share information willingly and knowingly (if perhaps grudgingly), sometimes with a corporation in exchange for a service or commodity. One’s choice do so is informed by the nature of corporations, which—crucially—do not have the power that governments do, nor the interests, nor the needs, nor the temptations; corporations which—crucially—do have a government to which they must answer should they abuse their power.

And then there are scenarios in which the government, whose job it is to protect the privacy and the rights of its citizens, takes that information in secret. This is not a difference of degree. This is a difference of kind. This is a flat out betrayal.

Furthermore, who Edward Snowden is and why he did what he did does not matter. Many of the anti-Snowden arguments hinge on the question of Edward Snowden’s character and motives. According to Leibovitz, Snowden “decided” that he had “privileged insights,” which allow him to “determine America’s national security.” Because he lacked “Ellsberg’s extensive education [and] combat experience” Snowden has “no real grasp of how systems work or why they’re necessary”; it is therefore his own “hubris” and lack of consideration that caused him to leak government secrets.

Aside from the implications of this argument—that only the educated and the experienced in combat may share information about a government operating secretly in ways its citizens may not condone—surely it is the citizens who will and must decide whether this information is in fact important or not, as the ensuing public debate has shown. Edward Snowden’s identity, his motivations, his intentions—these are all red herrings, irrelevant to the meaning of the NSA’s spying program.

Just as Snowden’s motives and intentions are irrelevant to the meaning of his disclosure, so too is the fact that he has “no concrete ideology applicable to guiding the course of human events.” It is equally irrelevant that, in Leibovitz’s words, “Greenwald and Bamford and others who share their view offer almost nothing by way of concrete policy suggestions, reasoned political stances, or anything else resembling a solution that might be applied to alleviate the suffering of real people.” This is not their job, but rather, it is the job of elected officials. Greenwald’s job as a member of the fourth estate is to keep those officials honest by disclosing what they do.

Indeed, one of the important tenets of a democracy is that short of an invasion, one of the biggest potential enemies is unbridled government power. And it is this that is protected by leaks like Snowden’s, and articles like Greenwald’s, and by the freedom of the press and the free speech that allows even an uneducated person to contribute to the conversation. Another central tenet of American democracy is the separation of the powers. Thus, when the Supreme Court throws out cases challenging the NSA for spying because the plaintiffs couldn’t prove they were spied upon, due to the State Secret Privilege, then democracy is failing.

Leibovitz views the disclosure of such information as inherently destructive, “directed against the concept of government itself.” Two camps emerge in Leibovitz’s schema: “One believes in its inherent right to know everything but does not believe in personal responsibility; distrusts states, America in particular… and speaks of human rights while caring very little about the lives of actual humans… The other camp believes in the common good, and understands that the common good is best preserved not by individuals making personal and erratic decisions but by nation states, which are sometimes corrupt and often in need of shaking up but still, fundamentally, our worst form of government save for all the others.”

It is unclear how Leibovitz arrives at the conclusion that “nation states… are sometimes corrupt and often in need of shaking up” since for him, anyone without an “extensive education” is hubristic in attempting to do just that. It seems to me that the opposite is the case; there is the camp who believes they live in a democracy, and that their rights should be therein protected, and there is the camp, which includes Leibovitz, David Brooks, and Nancy Pelosi, who seem to think they live in a police state. Even more shockingly, they seem like it. A responsible adult in Leibovitz’s camp is someone who is willing to suspend their vigilance in favor of trusting that government knows best.

Indeed, in a state in which the government has such access to my private conversations, what exactly is it that these anti-Snowdens believes should be protected from terrorists by the elaborate defense plan? It surely is not democracy as we know it, for they have sacrificed the rights, privileges and responsibilities upon which the American government ethic is built.

The argument that protection from terrorists is worth the sacrifice of our rights is a slippery slope. Indeed, should the government be able to read my thoughts, I am sure they would be even more successful at protecting me. But is that a world I want protected? Just what is it we are fighting for? Is fear itself an excuse to silence the watchful citizens of a truly American republic? These questions are difficult, and important, and should be a matter of public debate. Whether citizens of the United States want to sacrifice their rights to the possible aversion of terrorist plots by these compromises, or whether they agree with Snowden, that “bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans each year than terrorists” should be transparently put before the people. Thanks to Snowden and Greenwald, it now is.

Related: Glenn Greenwald’s Sick Brew of NSA Leaks and Anti-Israel Hysteria [Tablet]
Previous: The Rosenbergs, Edward Snowden, and Treason
The Emerging Culture of Surveillance

Print Email
Afrayedknot says:

Well said, Ms. Ungar-Sargon. My issue with Snowden is that he leaked information beyond what was being done domestically, and I don’t think serves the best interest of Americans. He, like Manning, seems to think that the US government shouldn’t be able to have any secrets.

Poupic says:

“…the government, whose job it is to protect the privacy and the rights of its citizens“ Since when is the government charged to protect our privacy? It is total non-sense! We give the government all our private information, income, social security, health. It guarantees our bank account. It protect us from foreign enemies. The government knowing what phone number my phone connected with is such a minuscule thing that anyone complaining about it even though they know it is to capture terrorists before they strike have to be considered friendly to terror. Personally, I don’t think that this collection of phone numbers is the way to go to protect us from terror. Instead terrorist groups have to be found and someone inserting himself in to find out in real time what goes on. As long as this is not done and friends of terror have the upper hand we are done for.

Reader20 says:

Respectfully, this article is grounded on an assumption that is not only unproven, but indeed almost certainly wrong: That Snowden has shown that “our rights” have been violated/are being sacrificed.

First, there is no constitutional right to the privacy of a so-called metadata. That is settled law. Second, the applicable statutory law protecting such material has been followed, the law it was amended by Congress to address the matters at issue and the warrants at issue have been repeatedly approved by courts.

Also, the more we learn about the metadata database program (as opposed to Snowden’s fantastic account of it), the less threatening it appears. It is a database of numbers, and can only be queried in a way that would identify U.S. persons when the government obtains a specific warrant — and then only in a terrorism case.

Further, Snowden’s ideology, and that of (the truly out there figure of) Greenwald, is relevant, since they are engaging in a project that is avowedly designed not only to expose — but to attack — our nation’s national security programs, including through what now clearly amount to misstatements and exaggerations.

Reader20 says:

Respectfully, this article is grounded on an assumption that is not only unproven, but indeed almost certainly wrong: That Snowden has shown that “our rights” have been violated/are being sacrificed.

First, there is no constitutional right to the privacy of a so-called metadata. That is settled law. Second, the applicable statutory law protecting such material has been followed, the law it was amended by Congress to address the matters at issue and the warrants at issue have been repeatedly approved by courts.

Also, the more we learn about the metadata database program (as opposed to Snowden’s fantastic account of it), the less threatening it appears. It is a database of numbers, and can only be queried in a way that would identify U.S. persons when the government obtains a specific warrant — and then only in a terrorism case.

Further, Snowden’s ideology, and that of (the truly out there figure of) Greenwald, is relevant, since they are engaging in a project that is avowedly designed not only to expose — but to attack — our nation’s national security programs, including through what now clearly amount to misstatements and exaggerations.

Reader20 says:

Respectfully, this article is grounded on an assumption that is not only unproven, but indeed almost certainly wrong: That Snowden has shown that “our rights” have been violated/are being sacrificed.

First, there is no constitutional right to the privacy of a so-called metadata. That is settled law. Second, the applicable statutory law protecting such material has been followed, the law it was amended by Congress to address the matters at issue and the warrants at issue have been repeatedly approved by courts.

Also, the more we learn about the metadata database program (as opposed to Snowden’s fantastic account of it), the less threatening it appears. It is a database of numbers, and can only be queried in a way that would identify U.S. persons when the government obtains a specific warrant — and then only in a terrorism case.

Further, Snowden’s ideology, and that of (the truly out there figure of) Greenwald, is relevant, since they are engaging in a project that is avowedly designed not only to expose — but to attack — our nation’s national security programs, including through what now clearly amount to misstatements and exaggerations.

Reader20 says:

Interesting ironic tid-bit. When Greenwald practiced law, he was found to have secretly, and illegally, tape recorded witnesses without their knowledge or consent.

http://www.leagle.com/decision-result/?xmldoc/20011275159FSupp2d1116_11178.xml/docbase/CSLWAR2-1986-2006

Thank you Ms. Ungar-Sargon. Good job.
LL did an embarrassingly poor job and it would be nice to hear how he connects his dislike for Snowden/Greenwald with the revelations about NSA.

It seems to me so obvious that
1. one can detest Snowden/Greenwald and
2. at the same time be concerned about NSA.

I simply don’t understand why people think it is essential to connect the two.

nobootlickinghere says:

” Second, the applicable statutory law providing certain protections for such material has been followed; it was amended by Congress to address the matters at issue and the warrants at issue have been repeatedly approved by courts.”

Says who? The panel of intelligence experts testifying before congress this week? Snowden released to additional documents today to refute their testimony. In it, there are signed documents by AG Holder authorizing the collection of data on Americans without the use of court orders. Read up on the Guardian. The actual documents are there.

The point is, if all you hear and believe is the government’s side, it’s easy to dismiss Snowden as a traitor. But, as it turns out, everything we’ve been told – and continue to be told – by our leaders is absolute falsehood.

Snowden has documented that despite the safeguards you eluded to, there are enough legal loopholes for the analysts to build a fishing net.

I do not understand how you come to your conclusions. He’s not attacking our nation’s security programs – only the spying on Americans. He’s gone out of his way to avoid revealing non-relevant data that could put anyone in harms way.

AriShavit says:

First, let’s not forget Snowden willing participated in these actions for a considerable sum before spontaneously growing a conscience.

Second, your account doesn’t mesh with what I read on the Guardian. Care to give the specific provisions to which you refer?

Reader20 says:

I suppose we will have to agree to disagree. Respectfully, however, I do think that your arguments — like many of Snowden’s claims — are detached from the actual evidence, including and especially the evidence that has recently emerged about the national security programs at issue.

Snowden appointed himself judge, jury and executioner based on HIS interpretation of the law. Never mind that (so far) the operation has been found to be within the boundaries of US law. Never mind that he didn’t approach a lawyer to discreetly challenge the government in order to halt or modify the operation as a cautious first step. Nope. He went to the Guardian to blast everything he knows (or thinks he knows) across the world. Now, thanks to him, China has managed to download 4 hard drives of data. Who knows what damage he’s caused.

Is it possible that the NSA stepped beyond their charter? Absolutely possible. Were Snowden’s actions potentially harmful, even devastatingly, irreversibly so? Quite possibly. Understand: there were other alternatives for him to pursue. There were more conservative, possibly more effective ways for him to address the problem.

Frankly, I don’t think people truly understand what the program was, and what it wasn’t. The question revolves around who owns “metadata” and to what extent the government can have access. Personally, I don’t think some people have sufficiently understood what “metadata” are. And, my sense is that some people think any government access to data is bad — a simplistic, naive position to adopt. And that’s the camp into which Snowden falls.

Please, please don’t defend this man.

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Edward Who? The Real Story Is the Spying

A response to Liel Leibovitz

More on Tablet:

Ongoing Controversy Around ‘The Most Important Story on Earth’

By Matti Friedman — Responding to critics of my essay about Israel media coverage