Edward Snowden, 29, is now a hunted man. The media this morning has moved from the shock over the massive surveillance of citizens to attacking Snowden as a leaker. Indeed, this morning, CNN’s Senior Legal Analyst Jeff Toobin denounced Snowden as a “clown” and someone who should be denounced. Toobin and I have been disagreeing a great deal lately. While I respect Jeff Toobin, I was surprised last week when he defended aspects of the investigation of journalists and later the massive surveillance programs. However, I was taken aback by the attack on Snowden. There certainly is a basis for criminal investigation — a point no one denies. He will have to answer for any violation of his clearance agreement and national security laws. However, it is the tenor and shift of the comments this morning that so surprised me. Rather than continue the debate of the loss of privacy, political and media figures are focusing on Snowden rather than the programs. You can disagree with his methods just as you can disagree with Julian Assange. However, there is an obvious effort to (like Assange) make him look unbalanced and dangerous. The story appears more complex. This is a man who gave up a $200,000 a year job and his likely freedom to reveal something that he felt the public should know about in the interest of privacy. You can disagree with his method, but few of his critics would even consider such a sacrifice for principle. Yet, the coverage this morning is largely on how to catch him and punish him. Over the weekend, the White House said it would find the person responsible and punish him. Snowden then self-disclosed his identity.
Ironically, President Barack Obama told the public that he was happy that we could have this debate over the balancing of privacy and security. However, he wants the person responsible for that debate to be prosecuted. Without Snowden, the program would have remained secret and no debate would likely have occurred. While aspects of these programs were previously discussed in 2006, this was the first confirmation of the programs from the government.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, called Snowden “a defector” and said “this person is dangerous to the country.” That is the new spin: the “high school dropout” and “clown” who fled to Hong Kong. Indeed, many news outlets are focusing on the fact that he allegedly had a $300 night hotel in Hong Kong before checking out. (Anyone who has traveled to Hong Kong will tell you that this expense for a room is not uncommon and it is certainly not “one of the priciest” rooms for the city). Much of the focus will be on Snowden and his case as opposed to the massive surveillance program. Many believe, like Snowden, that the greater danger to the country is the loss of privacy — as discussed in my column today in USA Today. What is clear is that this massive security state, and its contractors, are irate about these leaks, which have given critical information to the public that has long been denied to it by its elected representatives. It is a closed system that is represented vividly by Booz Allen. The current head of national intelligence (Clapper) is a former company executive. The prior intelligence head is now leading the company. It is part of a security state that generates hundreds of billions of dollars and we are the subject of their work under these and other programs. They do not like people causing the public to ask questions.
Snowden acted from within this closed system. We have a democratic system that seems entirely unconnected to the public. From the continuation of our fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to warrantless surveillance, the views of the public seem entirely immaterial to our leaders. They offer rhetorical responses but largely act within a system controlled by two parties and their leaders. Congress itself has proven, yet again, to be entirely disinterested in civil liberties or privacy values. The courts have refused to hear dozens of public interest lawsuits seeking review of such programs. In this environment, whistleblowers often feel that they have no recourse but to go to the media. Of course, this Administration has not only attacked privacy but the free press in the recent scandals.
What is striking is the anger directed at Snowden from the media. He will be held accountable for any crime, but he is also someone who acted at great peril to himself. I do not believe that that makes him a “clown” and I hope that some attention will remain on the attack on privacy represented by these programs.
What do you think?