Edward Snowden gave an interview with everyone’s favorite newscaster this week, and the internet is once again awash with “Snowden is a hero” and “Edward Snowden did the right thing” kind of language everywhere I turn. Well, except Fox News’ website. But the day I agree with Fox News on something besides the current temperature outside will be a strange one indeed.
I don’t care about Edward Snowden. I don’t care what admirable qualities he has, I don’t care if you think he’s an American hero, I don’t care if he’s standing up for what’s “right” under the US Constitution as interpreted by a bunch of people who don’t have law degrees and are not constitutional historians. Edward Snowden was given access to classified information – information which his job only necessitated he have access to for technical, not substantive, reasons – and took it upon himself to say “I think this is wrong as judged by me and I’m going to leak it on the advice of nothing but my own subjective moral compass.”
As it turned out, Snowen’s moral compass aligned with much of the privacy-charged internet community, and the outrage poured like margaritas at a Jimmy Buffet cover night. The problem is, this corner of the web doesn’t represent America at large. America at large, it seems, doesn’t really care about Snowden and at best is mixed on what do with him if he comes back to the US. In fact, most of the polls I looked at that were taken more recently tended to lean significantly more to the “do charge” side. According to Gallup, even the sentiment around what the NSA is doing is increasingly apathetic – a full 64% of those surveyed are either somewhat, not very, or not at all concerned about their privacy in light of the Snowden leaks. 35% are “very concerned,” but this is a dramatic drop from the 47% who were “very concerned” about their privacy in 2000, when the internet was a much different, younger place.
Well, you might say, part of this change is almost definitely a result in a change of demography on the web. There are more older Americans on the web than there were 14 years ago, and rural access to the web – where conservative politics are often a given – has dramatically increased over the years. This would make sense if the party lines on privacy were the same as they were in the Bush administration. But they aren’t. With a democrat in office and that democrat supporting a massive surveillance program, democrats have become much more likely to back that program. Meanwhile, grassroots republicans have returned to their highly self-determined, get-out-of-my-backyard independence rhetoric (see: Tea Party), and are of course now vehemently against mass government surveillance. At least, this is what Gallup tells us. To be clear, there is still a very large part of the republican base which support these programs and a very large part of the democrat base which don’t. Eg, traditional Reagan-era republicans and liberal democrats.
Now, I’m not a pessimist, but to be frank, the only thing I’ve seen come out of Snowden’s leaks is that the government now has to pander on a surface level to the most vocal and annoying (yes, you’re really, really annoying, I’m sorry) web community in existence. The NSA still only answers to the president and FISA courts and, on some level, to congress. The NSA is still going to strongly suggest to them that what they are doing is the best – and not just that, the only – way they can maximize the safety of America and its allies.
Do I think the NSA is doing the right thing? No. In fact, their actions speak more to the fact that the culture of paranoia within the American intelligence community is perhaps only rivaled by that of those who most vocally critique those institutions. Which is really kind of funny, in a way. My biggest complaint about the NSA is that it’s a blatant misuse of government resources (read: money) that is attempting to entrench itself as another “indispensable” arm of America’s anti-terror, homeland security obsession, essentially scaring congress and the executive branch into funding its folly. That really does bug me, as does the fact that the NSA is a total “black budget” program and essentially immune from public critique in regard to spending. We do not need details of exactly what the NSA spends money on, but knowing how much money the US puts into the agency at large is clearly not a matter of national security, and it should be open to criticism.
What I don’t really care about are the hilarious 1984 comparisons and fear-mongering internet privacy wackos are synthesizing out of this whole mess. America is no more a police state than it was when it was legal to have separate schools, bathrooms, and seating for people whose skin color wasn’t to your liking. Or when communism threatened the very fabric of our democracy and if you decided to protest an unjust war (Vietnam) the FBI was liable to start a file on you, let alone what authorities did to demonstrators like those at Kent State. Or when the government literally passed a bill making it a criminal offense to protest a war, say bad things about America, the flag, or the president (Sedition Act of 1918).
I am not saying no one is entitled to privacy outrage in this day and age. What I am saying is that America remains one of the nations most protective of the individual rights of its citizens (admittedly, rights of non-citizens is not one of our strong points, and that’s an issue I am deeply concerned about at times) and has one of, if not the most, defendant-friendly criminal legal systems on the face of the earth. I am not saying there are not problems with America in regard to privacy and surveillance, but I do believe that those who continue to spout rhetoric about how “the government” has “a file” on you and everyone you know and one day will use it to send you and your family to Gitmo for thinking bad things about the NSA have way too much in common with people who also think the government is conducting mind control on its citizens by spraying chemicals out the back of commercial airliners.
We’re allowed to have a middle ground. I am not required to hate and distrust anything the government says because it classified some surveillance programs. You don’t have to think the NSA is one day going to be watching every aspect of your life and is listening to your phone calls and scraping your text messages to believe that hey, maybe the NSA needs a little more oversight and a little less “collect ALL THE DATA” going on. And, admittedly, what Edward Snowden did has encouraged this conversation – not that I think he had the right to do it, especially in the way he did it (“Oh hey here are all these classified documents I stole en masse from the NSA basically indiscriminately, leak what you see fit to leak kbye”).
As a nation, we all know deep down that we cannot encourage people with access to sensitive information, now often much more centrally stored and easy to steal – given a motive – than it was 30 years ago, to leak things simply because they think they’re “wrong.” With Edward Snowden, it was an alignment of internet privacy interests and careful handling by journalists that cut the line between “hero” and “Bradley Manning round 2” (it’s worth noting that the latter had far, far less support than Snowden publicly). There are likely many other “wrongs” committed by the US government that we don’t know about, but dumping archives of documents potentially compromising legitimate and supportable state secrets is not the way to remedy them. I’m not saying I have the answer for what is – I just know that the way Edward Snowden didn’t wasn’t right.