Like many, I can’t help but be mesmerized by Edward Snowden’s whistle blowing—even if my conclusions are mixed. To begin, I’ve always assumed the government could read my email. Back in the ’90s, well before 9/11 and the Patriot Act, I was working with a friend on various paleoconservative projects, and he told me that he had been told once by a close mutual friend—who had worked recently at the highest levels of an allied government—that they (the top officials of the allied government) were instructed always to assume the Americans could and did read their email. And listen to their phone conversations. I wasn’t shocked or even particularly surprised, but I have always assumed since that time—near to when I began using email—that if the FBI or someone wanted to read it, they could. Maybe my friend or the friend of a friend was wrong, but I very much doubt it. The distinction between spying on Americans or foreigners has become increasingly meaningless in a world of high immigration, dual citizenships, and multiple allegiances.
Secondly, we internet users are accustomed, or resigned, to the intrusions of privacy that Internet use brings. Lots of private companies know my buying and browsing habits, and let me know with their targeted ads practically every time I visit a website. Does anyone really imagine that the CIA/NSA/FBI would know less about my browsing habits (if they were remotely interested) than the companies that sell products to those worried about distance off the tee or whatever? Of course, this knowledge could be potentially used for blackmail—say of a key senator before a vote. And I can’t quite imagine how the world would be if it were understood that no one had any personal secrets. Certainly movies like “Advise and Consent” and “Seven Days in May” would need different plotlines.
Third, I think the Obama administration will have a very difficult time prosecuting Edward Snowden. They can go after Bradley Manning because they have him, in uniform and in prison, and thus shut off from normal communication. Americans are unable to perceive how normal, probably likeable, and how similar to most of us he probably is. But Snowden comes across like everyone’s ideal of a really smart, techie, individualist kid. No high school degree, yet speaks as eloquently as an assistant Harvard professor. Smart enough to rise rapidly in the world without credentials, reminding us vividly computers really are a new frontier, the one field outside of sports and music where classic American Horatio Alger tropes have any continued relevance. If Obama wanted to do something smart, he should thank Snowden and offer him a job as a White House technology advisor.
And then perhaps not take his advice—for I am pretty much persuaded by the argument (made here by Andrew Sullivan) that data mining is the least noxious thing the government can do in the War on Terror. We do face something of a threat from Sunni fundamentalists. We don’t need to occupy their countries, kill and dispossess hundreds of thousands of innocents; indeed, those tactics are almost certainly self-defeating. But we do need to find out as much as we can.
As a footnote, I was interested to see, in Snowden’s interview, that he enlisted in the Army after 9/11, persuaded by the core neoconservative talking point: that we were going to “liberate” the Iraqis. He was later turned off when he discovered most of his military trainers were more interested in killing Arabs than helping them. But the detail enhances respect for the political sensibilities of the neocons: they understood that the war they wanted (for their own strategic reasons, laid out years before) needed to be sold to Americans as an idealistic, freedom-enhancing project. Playing on motives of revenge or racism or Israeli strategic needs wouldn’t attract smart kids like Snowden or millions of others.