Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah
Despite military crisis in Syria and fiscal terrorism in the United States, Edward Snowden continues to haunt American and global politics. He has exposed and unnerved the American national security establishment, its partner in international crime, Great Britain, and disrupted their planetary surveillance networks, which are far more extensive and menacing than previously realized, or even imagined. The NSA (assisted by GCHQ) not only aims to surveil, literally, the entire world with and without its cooperation; it also regulates and shapes the production and circulation of encryption standards and encryption software to facilitate its limitless eavesdropping. Snowden’s actions took officials by such surprise that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to Congress, with impunity, about the scope of NSA skullduggery in an effort to limit the “damage” of Snowden’s revelations. He, of course, has Barack Obama’s full support.
|At right: James Clapper|
Snowden’s status is much in dispute. Most Americans approve of his efforts on behalf of democratic transparency,to inform the American public about what is done in its name, and consider hima whistleblower. The government, unsurprisingly, deems him a criminal, disloyal, a traitor who aids and abets the enemy. The latter charge is especially critical to Obama Administration efforts to criminalize investigative journalism and buttress the inter-national security state. This kind of effort is already paying off, as Glenn Greenwald has documented. Mainstream media mimic the official state line, having been effectively cowed and co-opted over many decades by insider access and standing. NBC’s DavidGregory is perhaps exhibit number one. Jeffrey Toobin could be considered exhibit number two.
Edward Snowden should be thought of as a democratic citizen with the courage of his moral and political convictions. He belongs in the distinguished democratic dissident tradition exemplified by Chelsea Manning and Daniel Ellsberg and their heroic efforts to disclose American perfidy in Iraq and Vietnam. He is paying a terrible price for brave political decisions made for the good of democracy, rendering him a political prisoner (as is Manning).
One of the principal objections to Snowden’s whistle blowing is that he allegedly caused irreparable harm to the United States, endangering national security and placing lives at risk. In the wake of charges against (then) Bradley Manning that included aiding and abetting the enemy, this comes as no surprise. The common phrase heard early on regarding Manning was that he has much blood on his hands. Officials later retreated from such claims, but the work they do in slandering whistle blowers and whistle blowing remains.
Invoking the specter of death has long been the default response of the state to exposés of its secrets. During the Cold War instances of Soviet espionage involving American agents (Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, etc.) were followed by extravagant claims of unprecedented damage inflicted against the country’s national security interests, which, it was always said, would take a great deal of time to unravel and catalogue. Ironically, they were so enormous that they defied any specificity. People were simply supposed to believe government assessments without any evidentiary showing. There never were any such showings, of course, and the claims could not be taken seriously, though they would be made over and over again. Somehow, the republic never fell despite all the repeated damage cited. Only the Soviet Union collapsed—before the disbelieving eyes of American intelligence professionals.
What’s more, if American national security, aiding and abetting the enemy, or responsibility for lives gratuitously lost were really of concern in Snowden’s case, (now former) President George Bush would have been tried and convicted long ago for invading Iraq, which contributed to hatred of the United States across the globe, and gave al Qaeda its greatest recruiting tool and boost. President Barack Obama likewise would find himself in the dock for his global drone campaign that has murdered hundreds of innocent women and children and created untold mortal enemies in the process. These presidents have killed and murdered with impunity and have real blood on their hands, making the United States less safe in the process.
What really matters to the Obama Administration and other governments is Snowden’s audacity—that he would take it upon himself, as a citizen, to force a conversation on not just transparency but also on democracy itself, a conversation that people like Obama say they favor but do nearly everything possible to avoid, postpone, subvert, or derail. Democracies do not value citizens such as Snowden; they fear, police, intimidate, and do whatever it takes to control, contain, domesticate, and discourage them. (Julian Assange remains the target of secret grand jury proceedings in Virginia.) Rather, citizens in democracies must know their place in the political order of things and stick to it. This is why Vladimir Putin initially insisted that Snowden curtail activities “against” the United States before considering asylum. Putin did not want Russians to view Snowden as a model. Think of this as the infantilization of citizenship. It could be seen in the streets of New York City during the 2004 Republican National Convention; it could be seen in the brutal police reaction nationwide to Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and 2012.
Yet few things are as democratic as the people themselves not just defending but taking and exercising their rights as citizens. This may, on occasion, entail problematic consequences. In the United States, at the founding, Americans vandalized the homes of royal tax collectors to defeat enforcement of revenue policies. In the 19th century, a group of Boston citizens refused to let Anthony Burns be forcibly returned to slavery by a United States Marshal, who was killed in the process. Frederick Douglass defended the killing of the marshal, a kidnapper, in the name of self-defense and the right to life. These actions are not automatically condemned because they involve violence and blood. They are considered part and parcel of America’s patriotic tradition. They involve citizens, aware of the potential consequences, taking actions on behalf of a new democratic order yet to come. You can hear the infantilization at work when it is asked, rhetorically of course: Who is Edward Snowden to take such action on his own? The answer is: who does he have to be? He’s a democratic citizen.