Published on June 25, 2013.
What should we make of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower? The exclusive accounts of Glenn Greenwald and others from the Guardian, sourced from a week’s worth of secret interviews with Snowden in Hong Kong, are rock-solid, the proofs they offer incontrovertible.
The secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) on April 25 of this year, compelling the Verizon telecommunications company to provide copies of the “meta data” of all telephone calls in its system to the National Security Agency on an “ongoing, daily basis.” The secret 41-slide PowerPoint presentation of a massive monitoring program that allows the NSA to directly access the computer systems of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and other iconic tech companies, called Prism. The two petitions from US Attorney General Eric Holder to the Fisa, which sought broad powers to scour communications even without a warrant.
And yet some of those who may be expected to welcome Snowden’s revelations have raised doubts about the intelligence contractor’s story. Famous feminist Naomi Wolf, for instance, sounded the alarm about the United States turning into a police state in 2007. Last Friday, however, she wondered aloud on Facebook whether Snowden was the real thing.
“I hate to do this but I feel obligated to share, as the story unfolds, my creeping concern that the NSA leaker is not who he purports to be, and that the motivations involved in the story may be more complex than they appear to be…. It is just to raise some cautions as the story unfolds, and to raise some questions about how it is unfolding, based on my experience with high-level political messaging.” Her gut instinct told her: “Some of Snowden’s emphases seem to serve an intelligence/police state objective, rather than to challenge them.”
Her original post is worth reading in full, even though the eight bases she listed and on which her skepticism relied do not all have the same persuasive power. (She wrote a follow-up post the next day, defending her skeptical stance.) As expected, she got flak, a lot of it, for questioning the Snowden narrative. I think it was Gawker which put the rest of the Internet on her scent, but it may have been another kindred spirit—a leftist radical who thinks the United States has long betrayed its highest ideals—who wrote the most vociferous critique.
“I hate to do this, but I feel obligated to share, as the story unfolds, my creeping concern that the writer Naomi Wolf is not whom she purports to be, and that her motive in writing an article on her public Facebook page speculating about whether National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden might actually be still working for the NSA, could be to support the government’s effort to destroy him.”
Dave Lindorff’s post in The Counterpunch may have started with a satirical dig at Wolf’s own opening lines, but it quickly turned into a direct assault on Wolf herself: “wild-eyed speculation,” “touting her own now rather dated 2007 book The End of America,” “having reassured us how well-connected she is,” crescendoing to: “I have to conclude she has allowed her instinct for self-promotion and grandstanding in this case to let her do something truly treacherous and unconscionable: baselessly defaming and attacking the credibility of a brave whistleblower who is under official… attack.”
Another kindred spirit—Thomas Knapp of the Center for a Stateless Society—tried to strike a balance. It may be that there is in fact nothing to Wolf’s wondering-aloud; at the same time, he writes, “I don’t find Wolf’s musings outrageous. A bit paranoid, perhaps, but who can blame her? We’re well past the point where it’s become obvious that yes, they really ARE out to get us.”
So what should we make of Snowden? His flight out of Hong Kong, transiting through Moscow, and then possibly through Cuba, to eventual asylum in Ecuador, complicates an already murky picture. It may be that to the young man, Ecuador and Russia do appear to be the best place for him to escape the very long arm of the US military, intelligence and political apparatus. (He had initially said he saw himself in Iceland.)
But the irony: He said he leaked the NSA’s secrets to tell Americans that the federal government’s massive surveillance regime is “an existential threat to democracy”—but his range of options having dramatically narrowed, he will depend on the help of an actively anti-media government like Vladimir Putin’s, and live in a country determinedly seeking to curtail press and other freedoms.
About the United States, however, the pattern in the picture is easier to discern. First, there is an enormous disconnect between Obama’s stirring promise last May that “this war (the so-called war on terror), like all wars, must come to an end,” and his strained justification that the massive domestic spying program Snowden revealed was legal and even moral.
And second, the United States began to sacrifice its founding principles, and the civil liberties it had enshrined in its Constitution, when it became an empire.
“It is horrible, simply horrible. Surely there cannot be many born and bred Americans who, when they look at the bare fact of what we are doing, the fact taken all by itself, do not feel this, and do not blush with burning shame at the unspeakable meanness and ignominy of the trick?”
That was William James at the turn of the 20th century, writing about the despicable American treatment of Emilio Aguinaldo and the Filipino rebels. But reading that passage again, I cannot help but hear an echo of, well, of a wire being tapped.