NSA-leaker Edward Snowden is now hurting the PRISM story

I got an email this weekend from a reader who says she’ll no longer read the blog because she doesn’t like cat videos (seriously), and because she disagrees with my less-than-enthusiastic embrace of NSA leaker/whistleblower Edward Snowden once he started leaking the details of US spying on Russia and China.

Or this person, Boosterz, who wrote the following in the comments shortly after today’s story about Snowden and the NSA was published:

How is this anything other then administration water carrying? I have no desire to read obvious propaganda.

Urge to unsubscribe now overwhelming. RSS feed unsubscribed. Good day.

I’m always intrigued by “longtime readers” who disagree with one post – well, in this case with one title, and don’t even bother reading the post – and then write me, us, or any other progressive off forever.  Now, sure, a post defending slavery would merit writing someone off for ever.  Or a post arguing that women are genetically and intellectually inferior to men and therefore deserve to unemployed, barefoot and pregnant.  Fair enough.  But is Edward Snowden really in that same category of outrage?  Really?

Clearly, I have my suspicions that the answer is “no.”


And at the risk of forcing any more “longtime readers” to flee  (just a warning in advance: I’m bad about writing things that pander to anything (or anyone), other than what I consider to be the truth), now that we have new revelations about Snowden leaking information about US spying on China, it’s time to revisit just how much a hero he is, but more importantly, whether Snowden himself is undercutting, and deflecting attention from, his case against the NSA and its spying on Americans.  I can think of no topic more important to discuss if you care about Snowden, the NSA, transparency and civil liberties.

As I’ve written before, there are multiple issues involved with Snowden and the NSA leaks.  One issue is PRISM and whether it’s a legitimate way for the US government to fight terrorism.  But when Snowden is elevated to icon status, and put in the same category as Bradley Manning and Julian Assage (a questionable category in and of itself, in my opinion), as some sort of new generation of proud world citizens we all should emulate, then yes, there is a second important issue at hand: the propriety of treating these men as heroes and providing an incentive for other Americans to follow their path.

And it’s not just an academic question.

I think Edward Snowden has damaged his cause by seemingly declaring all out war on spying – American spying, to be precise – which risks making him sound naive (as if the US can, or should, simply stop spying while Russia and China continue).  But there’s a second problem to Snowden’s actions.  By releasing information about the US spying on our #1 foes, Snowden risks coming off as having a problem with America itself.  And regardless of the merits of any such animus – disliking, and being perceived as trying to harm, America is not a great way to win over Americans.

And we are talking about harm now.

The leak of PRISM can be subjected to a legitimate cost-benefits analysis of whether the greater good outweighs the harm of making the program public.  But leaking the details of our spying on the Russians or the Chinese, it’s difficult to find a reasonable justification for leaking those documents.  And I’m sorry, but “we shouldn’t be spying on anyone” doesn’t strike me as a legitimate argument. As for the “harm,” it’s always beneficial to know the intelligence successes, and especially the methods by which that success came about, of your foes.


But what’s worse, it causes a legitimate distraction.

After Edward Snowden leaked the fact the that US had intercepted communications of Russian president Medvedev, and now this past Friday we learned that Snowden has leaked the details of US spying on China, Snowden has made his intentions, and the legitimacy of what he is doing, a legitimate story.  And to the degree anyone thinks this detracts from the NSA PRISM story, they have only Edward Snowden to thank.  As journalists we don’t ignore good, important stories because they’re inconvenient.  And as I’ll argue at the end of this story, I think the question of Snowden’s hero status goes to the heart of the most important issue of this entire debate: the appropriate roles of citizens and government.

For someone to qualify as a whistleblower, the whistle needs a bit of refinement, a sharp edge, so to speak.  In my opinion, you need to be exposing a specific evil, and that evil can’t simply be that the US military kills people, or that US spy agencies spy on foreigners.   And even if you find a specific evil – like the Iraq war or the PRISM program – you don’t just release nearly a million documents (which Bradley Manning did), and claim that you were being judicious and careful about protecting legitimate American secrets.  There is no way Bradley Manning went through one million documents to make sure they were all: 1) legitimate whistleblowing; 2) safe to release, and that, 3) none put anyone’s lives at risk.

And I don’t buy the argument that Manning left it up to Wikileaks or the media to ensure that some deadly detail he leaked wouldn’t go farther.  That’s his job, as the whistleblower, to blow the relevant whistle.  THEN you can say, perhaps it’s the media’s job to make sure they don’t publish a story that’s going to get people killed.  But I do not accept the notion that a whistleblower doesn’t share some responsibility for at the very least attempting to ensure that he’s leaking relevant information to the very wrongdoing he’s claiming.  When you leak a million documents, you’re not trying to limit the damage, nor are you exposing any particular “crime.”

And the same goes for Edward Snowden’s document dump about Moscow and Beijing.  They have nothing to do with PRISM, or spying on Americans, and everything to do with either a dislike of the US, or a dislike of all spying.  And while I can respect that some people simply don’t like spying, and want us to stop, I don’t think it’s realistic, and I don’t think it meets the test of being a true whistleblower.  Everyone knows we spy on Russia and China, so revealing that fact doesn’t really convince the American people that it needs to stop.  It does however risk making it easier for Russia and China to avoid our spying the next time around.  So it hurts America, but doesn’t really help America – so why do it?

And if Manning and Snowden are heroes, is it now open season on all US spying?  Should we leak every classified document contained in the vaults of the CIA and the NSA?  And is anyone who does so a hero?

In my opinion, you’re not a whistleblower and you’re not a hero simply because you release classified documents.  And to the extent you are a hero for releasing certain classified documents, you undercut that hero status when you appear to be leaking additional documents willy-nilly.

None of this is to suggest that the PRISM revelation is any less significant due to Snowden’s subsequent actions.  But Edward Snowden himself has chosen to make Edward Snowden the story here, by his additional leaks, and his odd choice of nations to visit and leak about, which just happen to be America’s number one foes in the world (what’s next, leaks about American spying on North Korea, Cuba and Iran?)

And people who try to turn Edward Snowden, or Bradley Manning, into heroes, make it necessary for others to determine whether that hero status is merited.  So I don’t buy the argument that it’s somehow wrong or counter-productive to discuss the merits of Edward Snowden’s actions.  Rather than serving as a distriaction, such an analysis goes to the underlying cause that Snowden claims he champions, the rights and roles of the citizen versus the state.  I believe there is no more important discussion to be had if you truly care about transparency, civil liberties, and governance.

UPDATE: With today’s revelation, that Snowden will let the foreign press determine which American are too dangerous to Americans to publish, he’s off the whistleblower list for good.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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