Patriot Act

06.14.13

The Sickening Snowden Backlash

It's appalling to hear the Washington bureaucrats and their media allies trash Edward Snowden as a traitor, when it's our leaders and the NSA who have betrayed us, writes Kirsten Powers.

Hell hath no fury like the Washington establishment scorned.

Since Edward Snowden came forward to identify himself as the leaker of the National Security Agency spying programs, the D.C. mandarins have been working overtime to discredit the man many view as a hero for revealing crucial information the government had wrongfully kept secret. Apparently, if you think hiding information about spying on Americans is bad, you are misguided. The real problem is that Snowden didn’t understand that his role is to sit and be quiet while the “best and the brightest” keep Americans in the dark about government snooping on private citizens.

By refusing to play this role, Snowden has been called a "traitor" by House Majority Leader John Boehner. Sen. Dianne Feinstein called the leaks "an act of treason." The fury among the protectors of the status quo is so great that you have longtime Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen smearing Snowden as a “cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood.” The New York Times’s David Brooks lamented that Snowden, who put himself in peril for the greater good, was too “individualistic.” It seems that he wasn’t sufficiently indoctrinated to blindly worship the establishment institutions that have routinely failed us. Brooks argued that “for society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures.” 

This is backward. It’s the institutions that need to demonstrate respect for the public they allegedly serve. If Snowden or any other American is skeptical of institutional power, it is not due to any personal failing on their part. The lack of respect is a direct outgrowth of the bad behavior of the nation’s institutions, behavior that has undermined Americans’ trust in them. According to Gallup’s “confidence in institutions” poll, trust is at an historic low, with Congress clocking in at a 13 percent approval rating in 2012. Yes, this is the same Congress that has “oversight” of the government spying programs. 

When one major institution (the Washington media establishment) so seamlessly partners with another (the U.S. government) in trashing a whistleblower, it’s not hard to understand why Americans might be jaded. The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin wrote that Snowden is "a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison." MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell complained about Snowden’s naiveté and “maturity level,” as if only a child would believe the government should be transparent about its activity. Politico’s Roger Simon called Snowden “the slacker who came in from the cold,” with “all the qualifications to become a grocery bagger.” That people feel comfortable sneering about grocery workers—a respectable job—and writing off Snowden’s years working as a security guard as sloth tells you a bit about the culture of the nation’s capital, doesn’t it?

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Some members of the Washington political elite, like John Boehner and Dianne Feinstein, have called Edward Snowden a "traitor" who deserves to be prosecuted.

But he didn’t finish high school! Actually, Snowden earned a general equivalency diploma (GED), but that hasn’t stopped his detractors from spitting this accusation like an epithet. On Wednesday's Late Show With David Letterman, Tom Brokaw dismissed Snowden as "a high school dropout who is a military washout." On Tuesday, Sen. Susan Collins, mocked the 29-year-old man as “a high school drop-out who had little maturity [and] had not successfully completed anything he had undertaken.” Yes, if only he had gone to Harvard or Yale like our last four presidents, who have done such a bang-up job running the country. By the way, according to Glenn Greenwald, Snowden actually worked as a contractor for four years at the NSA, which suggests some level of specialized skill.

It says something about the lack of a positive case for keeping the NSA spying programs secret that the main line of defense is to attack Snowden for lacking the proper credentials to speak out against the government.

Apparently we are supposed to “respect institutions” so much that we never feel entitled to information about how they operate, even when it involves our private communications. Only because of Snowden do we know that our government is storing records of our phone data that can be mined for God only knows how long. This same government opted to not prosecute its workers who destroyed CIA interrogation records that might have implicated the government in law breaking. Does this seem right?

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper blatantly lied to Congress about the activity of the NSA, and there seems to be no ramifications. Yet the Washington establishment wants to put Snowden in jail and throw away the key for telling the truth. We are told to blindly respect an institution that persecutes whistleblowers for leaks of overclassified government information while watching the Obama administration’s leaking of secret government information to aggrandize the president during his reelection campaign. So, please tell us more about how we should have more respect for our institutions.

Whether one supports or opposes the NSA spying programs, Snowden has done a public service by exposing them and igniting a debate about government surveillance that even the president says he welcomes. There is no reason for the mere existence of either program to have been classified by the Most Transparent Administration in History. The claims that terrorists have been tipped off by these revelations are not credible. Nobody seriously believes that until now terrorists didn’t know the American government is monitoring their email and phone calls. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) told MSNBC Wednesday, “I don't see how [Snowden’s leaks] compromises the security of this country whatsoever.”

In his 2003 book, Why Societies Need Dissent, liberal law professor Cass Sunstein pointed out that, in society, “a single dissenter or voice of sanity is likely to have a huge impact.” But the problem for dissenters is that they “have little incentive to speak out, because they would gain nothing from dissenting” and in fact might be punished.

Snowden knew this and he did it anyway. He clearly understands something that those screaming "traitor" do not: the allegiance we have as Americans is to the Constitution, not the institution of government. Snowden summed it up best when he told a South China Morning Post reporter this week, “I’m neither a traitor nor a hero. I’m an American.”