Monday, August 5, 2013


One of the distinctive punditry patterns that has emerged from the response to the Snowden revelations (and that recall Manning's leaks) is the focus on the "narcissistic arrogance" of some young whipper-snapper who thinks he knows better than all those four-star generals and security muckety-mucks. This approach clearly marks the pundit who is not particularly interested in addressing the question at hand: whether a democratic society can still live up to the name when it starts promulgating secret interpretations of laws that amount, in the end, to secret laws. Or, more specifically, whether the decision to implement a plan of total information surveillance merits public deliberation, or, on the contrary, is best left in the hands of those who like creating secret laws. Two classic examples of the "whipper-snapper" dismissal are Jeffrey Toobin's CNN takedown of Snowden and perhaps somewhat more surprisingly, Josh Marshall's reaction on Talking Points Memo. Both follow more or less the same pattern, but Marshall's starts off by sounding a bit more even-handed and nuanced. In the end, however, it boils down to this for him:
Who gets to decide? The totality of the officeholders who’ve been elected democratically - for better or worse - to make these decisions? Or Edward Snowden, some young guy I’ve never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don’t agree with and is now seeking refuge abroad for breaking the law?"
 Toobin makes a bit more explicit the appeal to patriotism that infuses Marshall's account:
Every 29-year-old who doesn't agree with what the government is doing doesn't get permission to break the law, damage national security, and then run off to China when it’s done. It is not the way you protest in the United States...stealing documents from the NSA and turning them over to glenn greenwald is simply not the American way. 
Well, OK, he's a relatively young guy (younger than them, in any case), and they don't know him from Adam, and he clearly has some instincts of self-preservation combined with an awareness about what happens to national security leakers these days. But that does not quite get to the heart of the matter: were the facts he disclosed legitimate instances of government malfeasance, including over-classification, promulgating secret laws, and creating a surveillance state behind the backs of the American public? Do these matters rise to the level of whistle-blowing? Might they be discussed without harming national security? Would it harm the nation not to discuss them? The "whipper-snapper" dismissal works to background these questions and foreground a sense of indignation over the sheer gall of today's youth. Moreover, it works to background the concerns about total surveillance that were once a part of the political mainstream, but that have faded into the background of the promised wizardry of digital surveillance. In his recent article on the NSA, James Bamford recalls the Nixon-era concerns raised by Sen. Frank Church:
That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such [is] the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology…. I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.
Who are these young whipper-snappers to remind us of such concerns?  

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