On Snowden and Exile


On Tuesday night I had dinner with some old friends, and the conversation inevitably turned toward politics, local and global.  They’re somewhere left of liberal, so I was stunned to hear them say that Edward Snowden is a narcissist; that seeking asylum in the birthplace of the gulag compounded his criminality; and that he must return to the US to face his accusers and pay the price of his civil disobedience

Luckily my girlfriend was there to parry the narcissist charge—how can you say that Snowden was looking out for himself, she asked, when we all know he’ll be on the run or in prison for years as a result of his disclosures?—but before entering the fray, I realized these other two claims have been repeated so many times in so many venues that they’ve become received wisdom.  Cliches, you might say.  No wonder Thomas Friedman peddled them in Wednesday’s column.

Here’s old Tom at his breezy best: “Considering the breadth of reforms that President Obama is now proposing to prevent privacy abuses in intelligence gathering, in the wake of Snowden’s disclosures, Snowden deserves a chance to make a second impression—that he truly is a whistle-blower, not a traitor.  The fact is, he dumped his data and fled to countries that are hostile to us and the very principles he espoused.  To make a second impression, Snowden would need to come home, make his case and face his accusers.  It would mean risking a lengthy jail term, but also trusting the fair-mindedness of the American people, who, I believe, will not allow an authentic whistle-blower to be unfairly punished.”

Yes, of course, the man typically expresses himself in a manner that is clumsy at best, clownish at worst.  But here’s the thing.  Friedman is saying pretty much what smart people, even people I know and admire, people like those old friends at dinner, are saying.

Leave aside the specious claim of impending “reforms” that would prevent privacy abuses in intelligence gathering—no one is offering to open up the FISA courts to public or even Congressional scrutiny, so no matter how earnest the executive branch gets in sifting FBI requests for bulk collection of telephone data, we will know nothing more than the president is willing to divulge under authority of Executive Order 12333 and Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which remand all relevant information to the secret jurisdiction of FISA courts.

Concentrate, instead, on the claims that fleeing to Russia compromises Snowden’s moral standing and that returning to the US is either the index of his seriousness or the condition of his redemption.  These are the claims that constitute the common sense of our time—the common sense purveyed by those old friends at dinner.

Fleeing to Russia.  Snowden, you may remember, was bound for Equador or Venezuela, and, with Julian Assange’s assistance, booked what he thought was safe passage through Russia.  His presence there no more represents an endorsement of Putin’s gangster ethic than your visit to Israel represents an endorsement of Netanyahu’s racist regime.  Moreover, since when has the United States of America occupied the high ground of human rights?  This nation-state (it’s not the country that deserves my patriotism) consistently, continuously, belligerently violates international law and the human rights of people all over the world, and has been doing so with impunity since 1898—I mean not just the random victims of drone strikes, not just the populations killed, maimed, and displaced by illegal, unconstitutional war on Iraq (also Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, and Guatemala), not just the individuals tortured on our behalf by client states, not just the men confined without charges, also water-boarded, at Guantanamo, and not just the residents of the American prison system.

I also mean those of us who have so far escaped the sharp edges of the state and its bizarre notions of lawfulness—those of us who are, for now, the rest of us.


Returning to the US.  This claim has three separate parts that are seldom conjoined.  First, civil disobedience—violating the statute in the name of a higher law or constitutional principle—becomes politically legitimate only when those who break the law are willing to pay the price by putting their bodies on the line against the violence of the state and its agents, in other words by running the risk of incarceration and/or physical harm.  Second, we have real terrorist enemies that Snowden’s actions either ignore, as if 9/11 didn’t happen, or enable, as if his revelations won’t damage the American brand.  Third, the state cannot indict or convict Snowden in a military tribunal, in a reprise of Pfc. Bradley Manning’s trial—there’s not much new or alarming in what Snowden revealed, anyway—so that his voluntary return could become the occasion of an important debate conducted in public venues on the scope of the state’s constitutional powers.

In order, then.  The martyrs of the civil rights revolution certainly paid a price for their civil disobedience—they were murdered by white supremacists who acted outside the law.  Is that what we want or expect from Edward Snowden?  That he takes it like a man from a lawless government?  Is that what we expected from analogous forms of protest inspired by civil rights tactics, from draft dodgers, Daniel Ellsberg, the Berrigan brothers?  How much time did they serve?  Do you think this is Moral Monday in Raleigh, NC, where it’s fun to stand up to the Republicans and get arrested?

When MLK went to jail, the charges, the evidence, the hearings were public.  He couldn’t have been assassinated or indefinitely detained because the Justice Department was  monitoring his situation—the state in its several federal roles was protecting, not prosecuting him, because a formal charge of treason, J. Edgar Hoover notwithstanding, was absurd.

So get over Gandhi and Thoreau.  Think about what permanent exile might mean.  Think about what it would mean to turn yourself over to a Justice Department that, flanked by secret high courts and pliant Congressional committees, has declared you an enemy of the state.

Now, to deal with the second and third claims, which feed into the idea that Snowden must return to face the music, I cite Friedman again from a June 11 column in which David Simon of “The Wire” does most of the talking.  Friedman is just the introduction:

“So I don’t believe that Edward Snowden, the leaker of all this secret material, is some heroic whistle-blower. No, I believe Snowden is someone who needed a whistle-blower. He needed someone to challenge him with the argument that we don’t live in a world any longer where our government can protect its citizens from real, not imagined, threats without using big data — where we still have an edge — under constant judicial review. It’s not ideal. But if one more 9/11-scale attack gets through, the cost to civil liberties will be so much greater.

“A hat tip to Andrew Sullivan for linking on his blog to an essay by David Simon, the creator of HBO’s “The Wire.”  For me, it cuts right to the core of the issue.

‘You would think that the government was listening in to the secrets of 200 million Americans from the reaction and the hyperbole being tossed about,” wrote Simon. “And you would think that rather than a legal court order, which is an inevitable consequence of legislation that we drafted and passed, something illegal had been discovered to the government’s shame. Nope. … The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the F.B.I. and N.S.A. are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. … I know it’s big and scary that the government wants a database of all phone calls. And it’s scary that they’re paying attention to the Internet. And it’s scary that your cellphones have GPS installed. … The question is not should the resulting data exist. It does. … The question is more fundamental: Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse individual liberties and violate personal privacy — and in a manner that is unsupervised. And to that, The Guardian and those who are wailing jeremiads about this pretend-discovery of U.S. big data collection are noticeably silent. We don’t know of any actual abuse.”

This is so appalling that it makes me want to reconsider the moral universe of “The Wire.”  Never mind, actually, because that brilliant series demonstrated the emptiness of any commitment except the kind that keeps you showing up for work.  The mission there, in imaginary Baltimore, was to install the surveillance apparatus that would preclude any moral compromise by defining the criminals and preempting their crimes.

But let me translate David Simon’s statement: ‘Because the data exists, there’s no point in asking how it was obtained; it is what it is.  The more important question is whether the government is collecting the data for the purpose of public safety, without abusing any rights protected by the Constitution.  But we can’t answer that question because we don’t know what the government is doing with the data.’

In sum: “’We don’t know of any actual abuse.’”

Agreed.  We don’t know anything except what Snowden has revealed.  We cannot know what the FISA courts are doing, and we cannot know what evidence the NSA and the FBI will bring against Snowden or any other so-called whistle-blower, because it’s all classified.  We won’t know anything about our “real enemies” without a public debate about the nature of the evidence the NSA collects, and about the costs of our “war on terror.”

So yes, we have real terrorist enemies who are multiplying daily due to drone strikes, not Snowden’s disclosures, but no, his return to the US will not become the occasion of a public debate on the scope of the state’s constitutional powers because neo-liberal columnists like Thomas Friedman and liberal public intellectuals like David Simon want the government to keep the secrets on our behalf, for our own good.

How did this happen–that fatuous twits like Friedman, Sullivan, and Simon deliver the sound bites and the punch lines you will hear over dinner from people you admire?  Has this so-called war on terror finally rendered us unable to think, merely think?

The scariest version of the same question goes like this: is it possible that a usable past is out of our reach?




1 Comment

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One response to “On Snowden and Exile

  1. Two thoughts:

    1) Tom Tomorrow’s The Nation toon made me think of this post: http://www.thenation.com/blog/175826/when-whistleblowers-disrupt-transparency#
    2) Re: “usable past” — Do you think your thoughts on usable past in any way relate to Frederick Jameson’s “crisis of historicity” in the postmodern world?

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