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Edward Who? The Real Story Is the Spying

A response to Liel Leibovitz

Batya Ungar-Sargon
June 20, 2013
In this handout photo provided by The Guardian, Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong.(The Guardian via Getty Images)
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.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.

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