Edward Snowden will soon be prosecuted by federal authorities for disclosing top secret Government surveillance programs. While he styles himself a whistleblower, he is really something far more radical: He represents a new, and in my view, welcome, version of civil disobedience. He’s the calm before the storm.
Mr. Snowden, 29, is a former intelligence analyst, employed at various times by the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and, most recently, at a for-profit security consultant for the Government called Booz Allen Hamilton. Until recently, he was an electronic spy: his job consisted of helping the United States data mine, in order to keep track of virtually everything we do and say.
Increasingly troubled by what he saw, Mr. Snowden contacted journalists at the Washington Post and the Guardian in Great Britain. He gave them top secret documents proving that a lot of what we have been told, and what Congress has been told in sworn testimony, by senior federal officials is a flat out lie.
We now know what we long suspected: The Government hoards data from sources such as AOL and Google. It snatches telephone records. “The NSA collects the communications of everyone,” he says. “Any analyst at any time can target anyone.”
Is “living unfreely but comfortably ... something [we’re] willing to accept?” Mr. Snowden wonders. His greatest fear is that folks just won’t care about the extent of government snooping. They will be unwilling to take the risks necessary to fight and to stand up to seek change.
His fears are coming true.
Mr. Snowden sought refuge in Hong Kong before his revelations went public. He is seeking asylum elsewhere, perhaps in Iceland. He’s afraid that the world’s biggest superpower will prosecute him for telling inconvenient truths. House and Senate Republicans are already calling for his head. I suspect trigger-happy hotheads in the intelligence world have a drone or two with his name on it, and are just aching to hit the “send” button before he has a chat with some foreign intelligence services.
Why isn’t Congress calling for criminal prosecution of the senior administration officials who lied under oath about the scope of NSA snooping? James J. Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence, told the Senate in sworn testimony last March that the NSA was not gathering data on millions of Americans. Liar. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the director of NSA, told similar whoppers.
Of course, we expect spies to lie. That’s what they do. Prowl through my phone records, Uncle Sam; connect the dots of my electronic life, and then lie to me about it. I expected you were playing sneak and peak in the name of national security, although just who keeps me safe and secure from you is becoming increasingly unclear. But you’re going to lie to Congress, too? Representative institutions can, and do, fail.
Mr. Snowden snapped. He lost faith in institutions that tolerate and make a virtue of lying. He told the truth. Does that make him a whistleblower?
Not really. Whistleblower statutes typically offer legal protection to folks who disclose unlawful conduct. Thus a public employee telling a reporter about corruption in her agency cannot be retaliated against.
Mr. Snowden broke the law. He is not a whistleblower, but he is still my kind of hero.
Civil disobedience, by contrast, is a deliberate decision to break the law because the law is unjust. The classic model of such disobedience requires the law breaker to accept his punishment. Henry David Thoreau’s refusal to pay a poll tax in opposition to the United States’ war with Mexico in the 1840s landed him in jail. So did Martin Luther King’s decision to flout Birmingham, Alabama’s harsh racial discrimination laws. Both Thoreau and King calmly went to jail.
I don’t blame Mr. Snowden for fleeing the country. It’s one thing to face a few days in the local poke. In the age of mass incarceration, a dissenter faces a lifetime in a federal penitentiary. Prison-happy feds seek to lock Bradley Manning away for life for his role in disclosing government secrets to Wikileaks. Manning’s guilty plea to crimes carrying a maximum of 20 years did not offer enough blood to the federal beast. Snowden needn’t sign up for martyrdom.
The leaders of the opinion-making pack, such luminaries as Thomas Friedman and David Brooks of the New York Times, and Jeffrey Rosen of The New Republic, are quick to condemn Mr. Snowden. Rosen calls him a “clown;” Friedman voices his discomfort with undermining of national security; Brooks sees Mr. Snowden’s act as a sign of the loss of civic ties and an increasing atomization of society.
These critics miss the larger point. What makes Mr. Snowden’s act intelligible is the context of a broader crisis of legitimacy in the United States. It is a crisis the mainstream media can’t see because it is embedded in the very institutions that are failing. When a senior administration official passes gas, elite reporters get ear aches. Do either hear the grumbling stomachs of Americans locked away from the privileged bubble of the elite?
Not long ago, the PBS Newshour ran a series of stories one night: One recounted rising employment, but noted that the jobs were mostly low paying and part-time. Then came a report of record highs on the stock exchange. The next story talked about how difficult it was for unemployed older Americans to find work. Finally, a report on how suicide overtook automobile collisions as a cause of death, especially among older Americans. Not one of the prime-time geniuses reporting the news connected the dots: The nation is fractured. The affluent are doing quite well, thank you. The forgotten are, well, forgotten and ignored. Despair is a reality the comfortable refuse to fathom.
Mr. Snowden is America speaking. The hourglass is running out of sand. The gap between our rhetoric and the reality of our lives is growing. The dream is dying, and here, Mr. Snowden said, is proof..
The fact that so few listen is unsurprising. There will be more like Mr. Snowden. They’re prophets bidding the dispossessed to help themselves. They hope someone will listen, that we the people will reclaim the country, its institutions and the corporations that herd us like so many sheep. They are seeking to avoid what looks more and more like a tragic necessity: the fire next time.