Sometimes I say things that seem obvious and uncontroversial to me and am then surprised by the strong opposition they arouse. One such statement was in yesterday’s post where I strongly defended Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning and added that president Obama “has not (as least as yet) tried to kidnap Snowden or kill him with a Navy Seal operation or a drone strike but you can bet that it is among the possibilities that are being considered.” This aroused some strong reactions both in the comments and privately and I thought I would try and understand why this might be so.
The negative reactions stemmed from two sources and I will take them in order.
One was that if we let each and every person decide for themselves what government secrets to reveal, we would have chaos. (An undercurrent of such comments is that Snowden is too young and low-level and poorly educated and low class to make such decisions. I have responded to such arguments before and will not repeat them here.)
But the more substantive point was raised in a thoughtful email that I received that said:
“You can support Snowden or not – I don’t think that’s the point – but you can’t give people a pass for doing what they think is right and in the public interest. Many horrible and wrong headed things are done for those reasons every day. It’s not up to the person performing that action to decide. The men who bombed the Boston Marathon took enormous personal risk to do what they thought was right and in the public interest.”
Two points are being conflated here. One is the right to decide to be whistleblower. The second is whether the action they took is right or wrong. When it comes to the first, who else but the whistleblower can make that judgment? Bradley Manning, Thomas Drake, and William Binney all saw government wrongdoing and that their superiors were not taking any action on their concerns, so they took unilateral action. Snowden knew what happened to those earlier whistleblowers, how their concerns were ignored and how they became the target of government persecution. What would you expect a person of conscience to do if they saw massive wrongdoing? And if those people had no right to make such a judgment, would you also say that Daniel Ellsberg was wrong in deciding to release the Pentagon Papers?
The second question of whether they were justified in whistleblowing is something we, not they, judge based on what they revealed, not on whether they thought it right or not. This is true for Ellsberg and the rest. And what Snowden revealed showed that he was perfectly justified and is to be commended and supported. Similarly, we condemn the Boston bombers based on what they did, not on whether they thought it right or not. The whistleblowers get to decide if the information they possess is worth making public but we get to judge if they were right to do so or not.
The second negative reaction stemmed from what was felt to be my evidence-free assertion that Obama and his national security team had considered killing Snowden, even using a drone strike as one of the options. I thought it was an obvious inference considering the facts.
If Obama had never ordered such strikes in the past, then the accusation would be unmerited. But he has done so multiple times, and furthermore is not at all apologetic about it but has claimed that he has every right to do so. The only line Obama has not crossed (at least as far as we know) is to order the killing of an American on American soil. But that seems increasingly like a tenuous hurdle to be easily overcome as soon as the next ghastly atrocity comes along to provide a justification for doing so. I am not saying that I know for a fact that he has considered killing Snowden because I cannot eavesdrop on his conversations the way he can eavesdrop on mine. But I am surprised that people think it is unthinkable. Given the facts, why should we assume that he has not considered it in this case? What makes the targeting of Snowden so different from the other cases?
Is the discomfort at this idea due to the fact that ordering the killing of Snowden would be crossing a more disturbing, yet unspoken, line? Up to now, the murdered people have all been Muslims with foreign-sounding names, who have become the disposable ‘evil other’. This enables all non-Muslims to feel that they are safe from such attacks. But Snowden looks like an everyman, the quiet guy who works in tech support or is your neighbor. The idea that he could be ordered to be killed undoubtedly would make many more people uncomfortable because then it will strike them that no one is safe.
As it stands, according to the precedents set and justifications given by Obama, he has the right to order my death with a Hellfire missile strike the next time I go to Sri Lanka. Am I worried about that happening? No. But the only reason that I feel that way is because I know that I am not important enough to be killed, not because I have any assurance that the government honors my constitutional protections and feels it has no right to kill me. The latter illusion has long ago been shattered. I escape thanks to the indulgence of the government, not because I have the right to be free from summary execution. And indeed that is the whole point of such government-induced fear, to tell people that they had better keep their heads down, keep a low profile, don’t make waves, be good docile citizens, placing their trust in an all-powerful state apparatus.
But Snowden no longer has that luxury. He has challenged the government and he must be made to suffer and become a spectacle of in order to deter anyone else who may seek to emulate him. And what greater deterrence is there than death at an early age?
We already have evidence that Snowden is important enough that the US has pulled out all the stops in getting other governments to collude in capturing him. The steps range from revoking his passport and pressuring countries not to grant him asylum to forcing down the Bolivian president’s plane in an action that John Pilger describes as an act of air piracy. My one concern about Snowden going to Venezuela or Nicaragua is that it will be easier to kill him there with plausible deniability than in Russia because they are weaker countries whose rights can be more easily ignored.
I wonder also if the US government will threaten to torture Snowden’s girl friend or parents to force him to come back. Before readers get outraged at what seems like (and is) an abominable idea, recall that George W. Bush’s legal advisor John Yoo said that the president has the legal right to even crush the testicles of a suspected terrorist’s children in order to get them to cooperate, and Obama has effectively given immunity to everyone who was involved in the torture and rendition programs by refusing to take any action against torturers and their enablers. So we have to assume that Obama does not think that such actions are an abomination but are part of the tools at his disposal to achieve his ends.
So before people get outraged at the possibilities that I have listed, what I would like them to consider is this: Given the precedents set by president Obama and his predecessors and the known facts of what they have done and think is perfectly justified, why exactly does the assassination of Snowden seem unthinkable?