Monday, June 10, 2013

The Falcon and the Snowden (and the frog and the scorpion)

You've got nothing to hide, right?
We now know the identity of the person who gave Glenn Greenwald the information concerning the NSA's enormous database. Edward Snowden is his name. And he has his reasons:
Edward Snowden, the self-revealed whistle-blower at the National Security Agency, explains that part of the reason he decided to come forward was because President Obama did not roll back the surveillance measures put into place by the Bush Administration.

“A lot of people in 2008 voted for Obama. I did not vote for him. I voted for a third party,” Snowden said in an interview with the Guardian. “But I believed in Obama’s promises. I was going to disclose it [but waited because of his election]. He continued with the policies of his predecessor.”
Of course he continued with the policies of his predecessor. It was silly to believe he would do anything different. If you believe that government should be large enough to solve intractable problems, you have to make your peace with a state that is large enough to identify anyone who gets in the way, or could potentially get in the way. There's no such thing as a big government libertarian.

It's all very disappointing for those who love Big Government. Consider Ron Fournier, who shares his distress in a column for the National Journal:
I like government. I don't like what the fallout from these past few weeks might do to the public's faith in it.

First, you don't need to be a liberal Democrat to root for government efficiency, transparency and solvency. Even tea party conservatives expect certain things from Washington: a strong military; pensions and health care for the aged; student and small-business loans; safe food and drugs; secure borders; and, of course, federal police protection against terrorists, both foreign and domestic.

The core argument of President Obama's rise to power, and a uniting belief of his coalition of young, minority and well-educated voters, is that government can do good things -- and do them well.
So much for that notion. Fournier does an excellent job at cataloging the ways his faith has been undermined in recent weeks and it's worth hitting the link to read. Meanwhile, a few thoughts:

  • Is Snowden a hero? Or is he a traitor? You could argue it either way and probably be right. The larger question is whether the government he has certainly betrayed is worth defending.
  • We argue a lot about the First and Second Amendments in our normal discourse. Meanwhile, the Fourth Amendment is in tatters right now. It's worth remembering the specific language of the Fourth Amendment:  The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. I don't know how you square the NSA database with the plain meaning of the Fourth Amendment.
  • As Ann Althouse points out, this issue has made temporary allies out of Glenn Beck and Daniel Ellsberg, who played the Snowden role in the Pentagon Papers case during the Nixon era. I suspect this tells you more about Beck than it does about Ellsberg.
  • The larger point is one that Gino made in a comment on the blog over the weekend -- it is the nature of government to expand and protect itself. We shouldn't have been surprised that the government would attempt to build something like the NSA database. What ought to happen is that we stop and ask if it's wise for the government to aggregate that much information. But my guess is that we'll go back to sleep and talk about something else.


Brian said...

Is Snowden a hero? Or is he a traitor?

Not mutually exclusive categories.

Mr. D said...

Not mutually exclusive categories.


R.A. Crankbait said...

Like Prometheus, Snowden is a hero of humanity. True, he didn't steal fire from Olympus so it could be used my mankind, but he did bring light.

I wonder what the modern equivalent of being chained to a mountain and having your liver eaten out daily by an eagle is? (Being forced to watch The View with your eyes forced open ala "A Clockwork Orange"?)

First Ringer said...

I'll admit to being torn on Snowden and the entire NSA surveillance system.

What bothers me the most is the Joseph Helleresque attitude of the current government: we need PRISM because of the War on Terror; the War on Terror is unilaterally over; we need PRISM to keep the War on Terror from restarting (or something). It's an attempt at a bureaucratic Mobius strip that can't quite loop around.

Bike Bubba said...

I'm thankful to Snowden, as any assent I had to Bush-era snooping like this was under the impression, right or wrong, that it was limited, and that there were certain criteria required before the data were to be kept. To violate this is not only a 4th Amendment problem, but also a problem with the usefulness of the program. Too much data = no data.

Might have been wrong about the Bush era program, but that was my impression, and so Snowden is alleging that things went much farther than I'd suspected. What was that campaign promise that guy made in 2008 again?

Brian said...

I honestly think that it's a mistake (or at least a waste of time) to try and view this thing through a political lens. To expand on Gino's point, these types of programs (and law enforcement and intelligence initiatives generally) come from the agencies that do them. The Patriot act was nominally written by Congress, but was in fact a core dump of various agencies' wish lists, packaged into legislation when the career types (rightly) saw an opening to get a lot of things through Congress without a great deal of fuss.

And to a certain extent, that has to be the case. We don't really want Congress micromanaging the highly specialized agencies of the executive branch. Those things are run by career people for a reason.

But of course, we also have to maintain oversight on those agencies to keep them in check. Hopefully we're seeing a bit of that, here. Or at least the beginnings thereof.

The reasons it is so damn difficult to keep these things in check (a non-exhaustive list):

1. If something happens on your watch, you get blamed, rightly or wrongly.

2. It is in the various agencies' interest to make the most dire assessment of risk, both because of (1) and because it is good for their operating budgets. Which is why...

3. Every president is briefed on the absolute worst-case scenarios, pretty much daily.

4. People are terrible at assessing and weighing relative risk. Which is why...

5. Nobody ever got the Medal of Freedom (or won reelection) for accurately predicting a non-event.

W.B. Picklesworth said...

The question I have is: can government be rolled back or are we too far gone to do anything? I'm tempted to say the latter because cynicism is and realism seem like the same thing these days. But cynicism isn't really a place where I want to set up camp.

Gino said...

can govt be rolled back? its the wrong question.

this is only possible because today's technology makes it so.
can we put that tech genie back in the bottle? no.

FDR would have had his own Patriot Act if it was possible to this level back then, and he would have had the full support of the people, just like he did when corralling every 'jap' american west of the rockies.

those with power seek it further. this will never change. ever expanding technology makes it easier.

we love our cell phones and laptops. so do the bad guys and those who seek to do 'good'.

Anonymous said...

I am a not a U.S. citizen, and it is very interesting to see how U.S. citizens debate over whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. But wait a minute, it is very disturbing for me (and likely to whole world except U.S.)to know that other government gets to spy on my privacy.(U.S. is not even my own government- Where do U.S. government have right to spy on citizens of other countries?) Certainly, it is a volence toward all countries' citizens. Not even my government is allowed to do that to me. My point is that before debating whether Snowden is a traitor or not, U.S. people should think about international matter concerning other citizens' privacy and get rationale. It is a common sense to not peek or watch over other neighbors' house.
What U.S. government is arguing is that "Oh I have a key to your home and I checked every things inside. But I did it for my house's security in case you can steal or do harm on us." Hey wait uncle Sam, before accusing other countries for possible offender, you are already a big offender. It is time to see what is right and not for real justice.