The attacks on Edward Snowden have increased today. CNN’s Jeff Toobin who previously denounced Snowden as a “clown” has added that he is a “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison”. In the meantime, Senator Dianne Feinstein and House Speaker John Boehner have denounced Snowden as a “traitor.” Other media organizations have barred their reporters from referring to him as a “whistleblower” in what has become a deluge of negative stereotyping of Snowden -even before we know the whole story. Indeed, the attacks began with folks like Toobin almost immediately after he came forward.
Once again, I am not saying that Snowden does not have to answer for any crimes, but the effort to portray him as a craven traitor is a bit too much too early in this story.
In Toobin’s case, it is worth noting that he has also belittled the objections to the massive surveillance program — the same position taken by Democrats and the White House. He has explained his view of those programs, which I disagree with but respect. However, for Toobin to call a man a “grandiose narcissist” is bizarre. As noted yesterday, this is a man who threw his life away to reveal what he believed to be an abusive surveillance program (as to many other citizens). This is one of the most narcissistic towns on Earth and its leading denizens in politics and the media often seem uncomfortable with people who are willing to throw away their lives on principle. It is the type of self-sacrifice that they would never consider in their own lives. We have many principled and honest people living in this town. However this is also a town with an abnormally high number of sycophants, self-promoters, adulterers and the rest. In other words, narcissists. It is not surprising that so many would find an individual like Snowden hard to understand or dangerous.
The labeling of Snowden as a traitor will only increase the likelihood that he will flee to another country. This individual and story is clearly more complex than dismissing him as a “clown” or “traitor.” He insists that he revealed this information protect the public and privacy. That is not the motivation of a traitor.
As for the refusal to call him a whistleblower, it seems part of the full court press to demonize Snowden or prevent favorable references to him. [It brings to mind the successful effort to convince media to call waterboarding "enhanced interrogation" in the media rather than "torture" as it has long been defined by courts] Snowden is a whistleblower in my mind. It is true that the Administration can argue that these programs were lawful to the Supreme Court’s precedent stripping pen registers of full constitutional protection in Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979). Many of us disagree with that ruling, but this is a new application of the precedent. While the government has long sought the information for individuals, the Administration is essentially issuing a national security letter against the entire population. Moreover, it does appear that violations have occurred in these programs.
Putting aside the legality issue, whistleblowers are defined more probably by public interest organizations. For example, The Government Accountability Project, a leading nonprofit handling whistleblowers, defines the term as “an employee who discloses information that s/he reasonably believes is evidence of illegality, gross waste or fraud, mismanagement, abuse of power, general wrongdoing, or a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety. Typically, whistleblowers speak out to parties that can influence and rectify the situation. These parties include the media, organizational managers, hotlines, or Congressional members/staff, to name a few.”
Snowden clearly fits that more common definition of whistleblower, even if the government contests the application of statutory protections. Many can legitimately question Snowden’s chosen means for objecting to this program. However, the hostile and dismissive treatment by the establishment reflects an obvious fear of the implications of this scandal. Even US Sen. Al Franken (D, Minn.) has tried to stamp out the outcry by insisting that he was aware of the program and “I can assure you, this is not about spying on the American people.” Democrats are scrambling to deal with the latest betrayal of civil liberties without their knowledge and consent. Franken knows that the issue is not how it has been used (though abuses are being reported) but its potential for abuse. It is a databank allowing transparency of every citizens calls and associations. Nevertheless, the establishment is joined together in mutual interest to deaden the reaction of citizens, as I discussed in a column this week.
The effort to discredit Snowden is an impressive effort and could well succeed. There is less discussion of the loss of privacy as the focus has shifted to the price of hotel rooms and annual salaries for Snowden. We are being told again, by people like Franken, to trust us and go back to sleep. Franken added “There are certain things that are appropriate for me to know that is not appropriate for the bad guys to know.” Of course, it was not just the bad guys who were not allowed to know. Citizens were also not supposed to know, but Snowden blew the plan. Now people are actually demanding answers and accountability – something secrecy was supposed to prevent.
Before we repeat the growing effort to label Snowden as a traitor, perhaps we should ask about the betrayal of our privacy and constitutional values by others pushing these labels.