Did Edward Snowden tell us anything we didn't already know?

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Edward Snowden
  • AFP PHOTO / THE GUARDIAN
  • Edward Snowden
It doesn’t get the emphasis it deserves in our public schools, but if the USA is the world’s greatest nation the founding fathers' low view of humanity deserves a large share of the credit. I thought about this Sunday evening as I listened to BackStory’s excellent "The Road to Civil War" on WBEZ. We teach our kids idealism; but it was the idealism of the young bucks of the South, who believed declaring independence from the Yankee oppressors and then giving them what-for in battle was the only road an honorable man could travel, that led to wholesale slaughter (especially of themselves), economic ruin, and—against all odds—the death of slavery. The South’s wise old heads preached against secession; they argued that the indulgent U.S. Constitution, which inflated the region's power in Congress by declaring every slave three-fifths of a human being for the purpose of allotting representatives, was the best guarantor that slavery would continue. (Three-fifths was actually a compromise; the slave states had wanted each slave to be counted as an entire person.)

The Constitution is a Mulligan stew of checks and balances and concessions and occasional incomprehensibilities (gotta love that Second Amendment!) written—as nobler charters are not—with due respect for human nature. The principle of human nature that the founding fathers did not lose sight of is that no matter who cuts the pie, the biggest appetite winds up eating most of it. (I choose this metaphor because I really like pie and I know all the tricks, from eyeing the pieces as they're lifted from the pie pan and modestly deferring to the ladies or the guests or the youngsters or what-have-you until the one you have your eye on comes along, to sidling back to the counter for seconds, to bussing the dishes in order to help yourself to the remains.) "A Republic, madam, if you can keep it," said Benjamin Franklin when asked at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 what kind of government they'd come up with. Franklin's point was that we the people are damn fools and our own worst enemies, and there was no guarantee that some charismatic autocrat decked out in a purple sash wouldn't wind up back in the saddle vacated by George III. But the Founding Fathers had done their damnedest to create a government so balky that maybe the future's wannabe Napoleons wouldn't bother.

Down through the ages, Americans expect the best and assume the worst. Idealism and cynicism speak in voices so similar it can be impossible to tell the difference. These days when I open Mozilla Firefox I encounter a notice that declares:

Security and privacy are not optional. Stand with a broad coalition to demand that the NSA stop watching us: stopwatching.us

When we follow the link we come across a letter to Congress we are invited to sign. It says, in part:

As reported [originally, in the Washington Post and the Guardian], the U.S. government is extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person's movements and contacts over time. As a result, the contents of communications of people both abroad and in the U.S. can be swept in without any suspicion of crime or association with a terrorist organization.

Leaked reports also published by the Guardian and confirmed by the Administration reveal that the NSA is also abusing a controversial section of the PATRIOT Act to collect the call records of millions of Verizon customers. The data collected by the NSA includes every call made, the time of the call, the duration of the call, and other "identifying information" for millions of Verizon customers, including entirely domestic calls, regardless of whether those customers have ever been suspected of a crime. The Wall Street Journal has reported that other major carriers, including AT&T and Sprint, are subject to similar secret orders.

This type of blanket data collection by the government strikes at bedrock American values of freedom and privacy. This dragnet surveillance violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which protect citizens' right to speak and associate anonymously, guard against unreasonable searches and seizures, and protect their right to privacy.

The humongous list of signatories includes the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association.

This surveillance was revealed to the Post and Guardian by former NSA computer analyst Edward Snowden, who at this writing is a fugitive somewhere between Hong Kong and Ecuador. The idealistic reaction against it differs dramatically from the comments of pragmatists who like to think they look at all sides. Said President Obama, "One of the things we are going to have to discuss and debate is how are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy. Because there are some tradeoffs involved. I welcome this debate. I think it's healthy for our democracy." Former Tribune editor Jack Fuller wrote in the Tribune, "The Obama administration . . . has gone out of its way to include Congress and the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] in the [intelligence-gathering] process. It has allowed ambition to counteract ambition, and there is plenty of ambition around for the purpose. The administration should have been a lot more open with the public, and it will have to be now. . . . But the terrorist threats from outside are real. And the constitutional idea of separation of powers is still the best defense against the threats from government."

The problem with these sentiments is that they don't assume the worst. The open letter on Firefox harkening back to the protections laid down in the Constitution by the founding fathers is in the best tradition of high-minded American cynicism. It presumes that when given half a chance, people behave badly.

How can Americans trust the government with our personal data when we don't even trust ourselves? Let's face it: the dossiers of the lives we lead contain some really choice stuff (well, we like to think so). In the wrong hands—OMG! So who cares if the government insists it has absolutely no interest in the so-called metadata it vacuums up about who we call and e-mail and what websites we visit?. If the government has it, sooner or later somebody will give it a look-see. That's human nature. We love to snoop and we love to blab. And, if we're in a position to, we love to hold a little something over someone else.

The most recent issue of the New Republic contains an infuriating exposé of a multi-billion-dollar data-collating platform called the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS-A). According to reporter Robert Draper, DCGS-A has almost completely failed to do what it was created to do in terms of supplying American forces with real-time intelligence on the enemy in Afghanistan. It's a failure that Draper tells us can be measured in lost lives as well as money. To make matters worse, the Pentagon and its contractors keep throwing good money after bad to maintain DCGS-A, while disdaining a far cheaper yet superior alternative called Palantir. Said a Draper source, "If you're one of the mediocre-to-poor engineers working for the U.S. Army and you've developed the all-source tools within DCGS-A and have produced a Studebaker, and here comes this Ferrari that costs less than your Studebaker, it's an existential crisis! Of course you're threatened!"

Draper's revelations made me a lot angrier than Snowden's, but nobody's accusing Draper or his sources of treason. Why? Snowden gets the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg treatment (NSA director Keith Alexander told the House Intelligence Committee that Snowden's disclosures did "irreversible and significant damage to this nation") because he apparently betrayed something vital—I guess a covenant allowing the government to do what it thinks it needs to do so long as it doesn't call attention to itself doing it. All Draper reported was a massive waste of blood and treasure.

This waste is strong evidence that the national defense is riddled with venality and incompetence. But as the idealists denouncing NSA already assumed that, so what? And as the pragmatists defending NSA like to suppose the national defense is in mature, competent hands, they're not interested either. An abstract outrage is always more outrageous than a real one.

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