Watching the reaction to Edward Snowden’s revelations has been entertaining to say the least. Almost every media personality I’ve observed speak on it either talks about how they don’t trust him, or prefaces their concerns over the message with an obligatory swipe at the messenger. The latter often includes a shot not just at Snowden but at Glenn Greenwald, the UK Guardian journalist who brought the material to light.
It seems a bit over the top. Snowden and Greenwald appear subject to a standard of accuracy and at times vitriol quite different than the one facing high ranking NSA and contractor personnel. There is reason to be skeptical of spies in general, but why the high ranking spooks who have been caught splitting semantic hairs, evading, and glossing over key details are not much part of the story, while every last thing Snowden says is scrutinized for the slightest inconsistency, is puzzling. Perhaps what we’re seeing is a secret version of something many reading this would identify with: the difference in the treatment, perception and motive for corporate bigwigs vs the observations of rank and file worker.
In every company I’ve worked for since getting a social security number, employees could be split into three groups. There are the head honchos who make enormous salaries and enjoy lavish perks. Like first class or chartered jet travel to exotic locales, expense accounts, stock options, sometimes special executive health care plans and other benefits, and thus have every reason to fiercely defend that company, to present it in the best light possible, and to justify their position within it by any means necessary.
Then there is middle management, supervisors through department heads, holding jobs that generally, but not always, pay a living wage that puts them somewhere in the lower middle class to comfortably affluent. Middle managers work directly with the honchos, many dream of being a honcho one day and virtually all of them are heavily motivated to keep various honchos happy. Few middle managers lose their job or are demoted by telling honchos what they want to hear.
Last but certainly not least are the worker bees, the people who do the grunt work of customer service, clerical details and the like. That last group has gotten the shit kicked out of them in wages and benefits for three decades and counting. It’s well documented that worker bees have become more and more productive, while the benefits of that work has flowed mostly to honchos with some spillover to middle managers. But that’s a different post.
Honchos and to some degree middle managers get to see the big picture. If asked about their company or products they tend to speak in grandiose, optimistic terms. From their more remote perch they’re likely to perceive day to day operations and try to solve problems from a policy perspective. Worker bees are more likely to see the limits of policy in general and shortcomings of specific ones. It should come as no surprise that they have a good knowledge of both and can describe the Rube Goldberg work-arounds used every day to do their jobs in great detail.
It might sound odd to classify Snowden in with worker bees or low level middle management when he made a high of 200K a year and was earning a cool 122K at Booz Allen Hamilton. But the pay scales at companies vary widely and it might help explain why we’re hearing divergent stories.
When an NSA honcho says government or private spooks are not trolling through the private conversations of U.S. citizens at will, assuming they’re being truthful, they’re talking about policy. When Snowden says someone in his position could review emails or phone records of any conversation of any U.S. citizen, he’s talking about technology. Honchos are thinking about what they have decreed as permissible, Snowden is talking about what is actually possible.
To sum it up, corporate honchos enjoy the benefit of the doubt from the fellow media honchos, worker bees do not. For profit private NSA contractor honchos like Mike McConnell, people who presumably earn seven figures a year, are deeply motivated to perceive and portray their employer and their industry in the best light possible, worker bees are not. Not to mention that up to now, this has all been so secret, even members of the Intelligence Committees in the House and Senate may not always get the full story or hear about problems and abuses. Especially as long as their only source of info is honcho approved and delivered.
In that light is it possible that any relatively minor discrepancies between what Snowden and Greenwald have made available, and what honchos are claiming, make a lot more sense?