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Edward Snowden: Traitor Or Hero?

James Bamford’s longish piece on Edward Snowden in Wired is well worth a read.  Snowden sat down in Moscow with Bamford, the veteran journalist who covers spycraft and the NSA, for an interview. The piece brings out why I struggle to decide what to make of Snowden. On the one hand, I do believe he was […]

James Bamford’s longish piece on Edward Snowden in Wired is well worth a read.  Snowden sat down in Moscow with Bamford, the veteran journalist who covers spycraft and the NSA, for an interview. The piece brings out why I struggle to decide what to make of Snowden. On the one hand, I do believe he was a traitor, though not in the sense of serving a foreign power. You can’t have people giving away the government’s secrets. On the other hand — and this is where my heart is — what are your moral obligations when you come to believe your government is a menace to law and liberty? From the Bamford piece:

The massive surveillance effort was bad enough, but Snowden was even more disturbed to discover a new, Strangelovian cyberwarfare program in the works, codenamed MonsterMind. The program, disclosed here for the first time, would automate the process of hunting for the beginnings of a foreign cyberattack. Software would constantly be on the lookout for traffic patterns indicating known or suspected attacks. When it detected an attack, MonsterMind would automatically block it from entering the country—a “kill” in cyber terminology.

Programs like this had existed for decades, but MonsterMind software would add a unique new capability: Instead of simply detecting and killing the malware at the point of entry, MonsterMind would automatically fire back, with no human involvement. That’s a problem, Snowden says, because the initial attacks are often routed through computers in innocent third countries. “These attacks can be spoofed,” he says. “You could have someone sitting in China, for example, making it appear that one of these attacks is originating in Russia. And then we end up shooting back at a Russian hospital. What happens next?”

In addition to the possibility of accidentally starting a war, Snowden views MonsterMind as the ultimate threat to privacy because, in order for the system to work, the NSA first would have to secretly get access to virtually all private communications coming in from overseas to people in the US. “The argument is that the only way we can identify these malicious traffic flows and respond to them is if we’re analyzing all traffic flows,” he says. “And if we’re analyzing all traffic flows, that means we have to be intercepting all traffic flows. That means violating the Fourth Amendment, seizing private communications without a warrant, without probable cause or even a suspicion of wrongdoing. For everyone, all the time.” (A spokesperson for the NSA declined to comment on MonsterMind, the malware in Syria, or on the specifics of other aspects of this article.)

Given the NSA’s new data storage mausoleum in Bluffdale, its potential to start an accidental war, and the charge to conduct surveillance on all incoming communications, Snowden believed he had no choice but to take his thumb drives and tell the world what he knew. The only question was when.

The trigger was intelligence chief James Clapper testifying before Congress that the NSA is “not wittingly” gathering information on millions of Americans who are not suspected of wrongdoing. It was a blatant lie.

“It’s like the boiling frog,” Snowden tells me. “You get exposed to a little bit of evil, a little bit of rule-breaking, a little bit of dishonesty, a little bit of deceptiveness, a little bit of disservice to the public interest, and you can brush it off, you can come to justify it. But if you do that, it creates a slippery slope that just increases over time, and by the time you’ve been in 15 years, 20 years, 25 years, you’ve seen it all and it doesn’t shock you. And so you see it as normal. And that’s the problem, that’s what the Clapper event was all about. He saw deceiving the American people as what he does, as his job, as something completely ordinary. And he was right that he wouldn’t be punished for it, because he was revealed as having lied under oath and he didn’t even get a slap on the wrist for it. It says a lot about the system and a lot about our leaders.” Snowden decided it was time to hop out of the water before he too was boiled alive.

One more excerpt, about the process of disillusionment:

Because of his job maintaining computer systems and network operations, he had more access than ever to information about the conduct of the war. What he learned troubled him deeply. “This was the Bush period, when the war on terror had gotten really dark,” he says. “We were torturing people; we had warrantless wiretapping.”

He began to consider becoming a whistle-blower, but with Obama about to be elected, he held off. “I think even Obama’s critics were impressed and optimistic about the values that he represented,” he says. “He said that we’re not going to sacrifice our rights. We’re not going to change who we are just to catch some small percentage more terrorists.” But Snowden grew disappointed as, in his view, Obama didn’t follow through on his lofty rhetoric. “Not only did they not fulfill those promises, but they entirely repudiated them,” he says. “They went in the other direction. What does that mean for a society, for a democracy, when the people that you elect on the basis of promises can basically suborn the will of the electorate?”

Read the whole thing. It’s funny, but after I finished the Snowden piece, I reflected on how the first decade of the 21st century pretty much destroyed my ability to trust in and be loyal to authority. The Bush Administration and its conduct of the Iraq War made me permanently distrust my government; the Snowden revelations only solidified that view. The Catholic abuse scandal, and the corruption within the highest levels of the Orthodox Church in America, made it impossible for me to believe in the integrity of church hierarchy. The financial crash, and what came out afterwards about the way Wall Street did business, and how little real reform came out of that disaster, obliterated my ability to trust in the financial sector.

Understand, I’m not saying that I believe all people who work in government, the church, or finance are bad. I know that is not true. I’m saying that I no longer assume that they are trustworthy and serving the good. In fact, I assume the opposite, until shown otherwise.

And yet, I am a conservative who believes strongly that society is impossible without authoritative institutions. If I had been in Snowden’s shoes, I might have done the same thing, out of fidelity to the moral law. As Augustine said, an immoral law is no law at all. At the same time, it is perfectly clear that a government riddled with even a thousand Snowdens, who believe they have the right to determine which of the government’s secrets to make public, could not function. Snowden may have had a clear moral mandate to become a whistleblower, but what about someone whose motives weren’t as pure as Snowden’s seem to have been? Where do you draw the line? In the case of the church, or Wall Street, I would cheer for any whistleblower who broke his (assumed) pledge of loyalty to expose grave injustice or serious wrongdoing. But national security is a more serious matter, and not one to be taken lightly. This is what troubles me about the Snowden case, even though my sympathies definitely lie with him.

The philosophical question that weighs heavily on my mind: How do you respond when you affirm the need for authoritative institutions in society, but do not have the ability to trust those institutions?