The fascinating reactions to whistleblowing

It has been fascinating to observe the reactions to the Edward Snowden whistleblowing, There has clearly been an immediate groundswell of popular support for Snowden among ordinary people who see him as a young person who had the courage of his convictions to risk his entire future to reveal government wrongdoing. There are already over 60,000 signatures on a White House petition calling Snowden a “national hero” and that he “should be immediately issued a full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes he has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs.” Of course this is not going to happen but it must be encouraging for Snowden to know that so many people support him.

The opposition to Snowden’s actions has also been interesting to observe, especially on the Democratic side. Republicans are torn between wanting to use this as yet another opportunity to criticize president Obama while at the same time not wanting to look as if they are supporting Snowden’s actions and going against the secretive, authoritarian state that they love. Many Democrats have the opposite problem, not wanting to support Snowden because that would imply that they are criticizing their Dear Leader, but at the same time wanting to cling on to the illusion that they are supporters of openness and transparency in government.

As a result, they are treading water and the range of justifications they are giving for their absence of a clear position have been almost comical in their contortions. Josh Marshall has been taking flak from his readers for his equivocation on this issue and has issued a lengthy defense of why he does not approve of the actions of either Bradley Manning or Snowden and does not even consider them deserving of the title of whistleblowers. Marshall provides a revealing insight into the authoritarian mindset:

Snowden is doing more than triggering a debate. I think it’s clear he’s trying to upend, damage – choose your verb – the US intelligence apparatus and policieis he opposes. The fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone doubts that narrow point. But he’s not just opening the thing up for debate. He’s taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me that’s a betrayal. I think it’s easy to exaggerate how much damage these disclosures cause. But I don’t buy that there are no consequences. And it goes to the point I was making in an earlier post. Who gets to decide? The totality of the officeholders who’ve been elected democratically – for better or worse – to make these decisions? Or Edward Snowden, some young guy I’ve never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don’t agree with and is now seeking refuge abroad for breaking the law?

I don’t have a lot of problem answering that question.

Kevin Drum takes the safer attitude of the knowing but puzzled insider asking “What’s the big deal? Didn’t we already know all this?”

The punditocracy, ever-mindful of their need to stay in the good graces of the establishment if they are to continue having access to the platforms where they spout their banalities, have resorted to laughable levels of argument in their attempt to discredit Snowden and his actions..

The problem for them is that Snowden seems to have given his opponents very little to attack him with. As I said, his decision to reveal himself and his motives was a brilliant move that enabled him to frame the debate and himself and this has caught his critics wrong-footed. Despite the undoubted strenuous efforts to find any dirt on him, he seems to have led a remarkably uneventful, even boring, life. As a result some have resorted to playground name-calling. CNN’s legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has called him a “clown”, and a “grandiose narcissistic who deserves to be in prison”. A surprising number of people have used the word narcissistic (including Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen who is always wrong and often laughably so) which is an interesting choice and says more about them than about Snowden.

Apart from the incongruity of people whose entire lives seem to be devoted to finding ways to be on TV calling others narcissistic, the word hints at the fact that these people seem to be really offended that someone they consider an absolute nobody in terms of education and social and economic background has done something that has grabbed the attention of the entire nation and upended the world of the ruling class circles in which they feel so comfortable. What they are really saying is: “How dare such insignificant people take upon themselves to make decisions that only people like us are qualified to make?” It seems like they feel that such an enormous act should have been done by a better class of person, not by people with middle and working class backgrounds with little or no formal education, let alone Ivy League degrees and ruling class pedigrees.

A surprising number have focused on Snowden personally, his life and employment, and even his relationship with his girl friend. They have tried to negatively portray his going to Hong Kong (How dare he even suggest that another country may provide greater protection for free speech than the US?) without telling his girl friend what he was up to. But her father, when asked what message he had for him, shot down that line of investigation by saying, “Just wish him good luck and he’s got my love.”

Notable among the media figures who are defending the NSA’s actions are people like Bill Maher, Andrew Sullivan, and others who, as usual, see their task as to defend the authoritarian state as long as Obama is in charge of it. Jonathan Turley describes other efforts to discredit Snowden and points out that senator Al Franken, supposedly a progressive, seems to have decided that it is perfectly fine that he belongs to the privileged class of people who have the right to decide what the public should know and not know, and that we should trust him and the government.

Hamilton Nolan provides an interesting take on this outpouring of media vanity:

You’ll notice a few commonalities between all of these dismissive positions. All of these members of the media, who ostensibly work on the public’s behalf, would prefer to take the completely unverifiable word of a top-secret government agency that nothing is amiss, rather than to see any classified materials leak into the public realm. They fancy themselves able to deduce the motivations and mindset of Edward Snowden based on the thinnest of anecdotes. They all express contempt for the idea that the public has a right to know what its government is up to, unless that knowledge has been specifically approved by government censors.

And they all, in one form or another, express the idea that this stuff is unworthy of our concern because, hey, smart people like them already knew (er, assumed) this stuff was going on. To pay too much attention to it now would therefore undermine their reputation for being savvy. This is the most dangerous idea of all. When the media itself can’t be bothered to get excited about an enormous secret government spying program, we’re all in trouble.

A new Pew survey suggests that a majority of Americans, always easily frightened by the terrorist boogeyman, support the NSA surveillance but the numbers move around in a partisan manner depending on who does the spying, once again revealing the widespread tribal mindset that poisons the nation’s health but benefits politicians and hacks. The punditocracy have seized on the Pew study to suggest that the people share their disdain for Snowden’s actions.

But not so fast. A Rasmussen poll suggests that this support may be somewhat volatile because they find that 59% oppose the government’s secret collection of phone records. And a CBS poll finds that “Seventy-five percent of Americans approve of federal agencies collecting the phone records of people the government suspects of terrorist activity, but a 58 percent majority disapproves of this type of data collection in the case of ordinary Americans.” So it depends a lot on how the question is worded.

Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have laid bare the divide between authoritarians and anti-authoritarians and some people are finding that choice hard to make.


  1. doublereed says

    I’ve heard numerous people say both that we deserve to know what information is being collected about us and that Snowden is a traitor.

    Those sound contradictory to me in these circumstances.

  2. Steve LaBonne says

    Al Franken has been a major disappointment. Our politics have become truly depressing. Learned helplessness is exactly what our lords and masters want from us, but after so many betrayals from “liberals” I’m losing the will to go on fighting it.

  3. gshelley says

    Fro politicians, I have seen a lot of them calling him a traitor, or saying he must be extradited for trial. I have also seen a lot of them insist the administration has a lot of explaining to do and that they have been going too far. I don’t actually know if there is any overlap between those two positions, but I would not be even a little surprised.

  4. machintelligence says

    The fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone doubts that narrow point.

    When someone says (or implies) “surely”, this is probably a weak point in their argument. When they have to back it up with an “undoubtedly” you can be sure it is.
    If it spoke for itself, you wouldn’t have to say it.

  5. jamessweet says

    There’s potentially another problem with those poll numbers, although perhaps it’s not such a big deal because people like me may be in the minority: I am not necessarily adamantly opposed to broad surveillance like this*, but I am opposed to it being conducted in secret, without being exposed to an open democratic process. Even if the American public decides that this level of snooping is acceptable and appropriate, Snowden still did the right thing in bringing it to daylight.

    * I don’t think it really makes us safer, but I’m skeptical that it can really be stopped in practice, and I’d rather have a conversation about limitations and safeguards than be part of a never-ending futile attempt to get the government to promise not to do it (and really mean it this time!)

  6. jamessweet says

    The fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone doubts that narrow point.

    When someone says (or implies) “surely”, this is probably a weak point in their argument. When they have to back it up with an “undoubtedly” you can be sure it is.
    If it spoke for itself, you wouldn’t have to say it.

    Well, maybe. Depends what we are talking about. In this case, I agree with Marshall on that “narrow point”: I can’t see anyone really making a case that Snowden’s actions weren’t in violation of federal law. (The best one could do, I suppose, would be to argue that said laws are unconstitutional and therefore void, but I think even then you are really going to have to stretch — Snowden may have exposed practices that contradict the 4th Amendment, but the 4th wouldn’t apply to the laws that prevented him from disclosing those practices… I guess you could argue the 1st Amendment, but there’s loads of jurisprudence that will weaken your case.)

    FWIW, I agree with the petition going around: Snowden should be pardoned. He did break the law, but he did so in a way that was morally and ethically right, and that will ultimately make our democracy stronger.

    To bring it back around: Yeah, I think Marshall was being fair in the quoted section. That Snowden was in technical violation of the law is a point that is not (or at least, ought not) to be in dispute.

  7. says

    The fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself.

    I suppose it does if you assume that the law reflects morality, such that any act that’s defined in any country as illegal is therefore immoral. Otherwise, I don’t know what that fact is supposed to be saying.


    It’s funny -- right after I read your post I read this one by Corey Robin about David Brooks’ characterization of Snowden and authoritarian argument. That also caught my eye because I was just reading yesterday or the day before about a picture of Snowden’s laptop showing an Electronic Frontier Foundation sticker (I’ve written about EFF in the past on my blog). There’s no evidence of a relationship between Snowden and the EFF beyond his appreciation of their work, but I wonder if he would have felt empowered to act as he did if he didn’t feel like part of a movement dedicated to defending people’s rights in that sphere. But those aren’t the sorts of communities favored by Brooks: he wants people tied to hierarchical institutions that will keep them in line.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Josh Marshall has done some very good journalism -- e.g., TPM broke the story of Karl Rove’s scheme to fire US Attorneys who didn’t follow orders on prosecuting bogus “voter fraud” non-cases.

    He also suffers from severe slow-learner syndrome, having supported the illegal Bush invasion of Iraq and taking several years to figure out that this was a Bad Idea (I still can’t tell if he has yet realized it was/is a war crime).

    jamessweet @ # 7: … Marshall was being unfair in the quoted section. That Snowden Obama was in technical violation of the law is a point that is not (or at least, ought not) to be in dispute.

    Anything else I can fix for ya while I’m here?

  9. wtfwhatever says

    Well, I asked here in your blog a day or so ago, didn’t we know all of this already?

    That’s not to diminish it, it’s to ask why now the upset and not back in 2005 and 2006?

    It’s good people are getting upset, but frankly the pundits and leaders most upset are either idiots, forgetful or giving us their best Capt. Renault.

  10. jamessweet says

    So we can argue that the NSA program was a violation of the 4th Amendment, and I’d be inclined to agree… but that is somewhat irrelevant to the proposition of whether or not Snowden was technically in violation of the law.

    AFAIK, laws regarding the handling of classified information do not include an exemption such as “unless the classified information you are disclosing is illegal/unconstitutional/etc.” If they do, then I stand corrected!

    Snowden was doing the right thing, but there’s little doubt that he was technically violating laws against disclosure of classified information. The information was classified… he disclosed it… is there something I am missing here?

    Again let me reiterate that Snowden did the right thing, and he should not be prosecuted, and if he is prosecuted he should be pardoned. But on the narrow point of whether his actions violated existing federal law? I don’t really see a way to argue otherwise.

  11. says

    Apparently not. I was thinking about him when you posted recently about Andrew Sullivan -- they’re both on my list of Wildly Overrated Men (it also includes Andrew Brown at the Guardian, Jesse Bering,…) who continue to be given platforms to babble.

  12. wtfwhatever says

    Without agreeing entirely with him, I think Josh Marshall makes some good points.

    I don’t have a problem with the kind of metadata that we believe the NSA is able to obtain.

    What I have a problem with is the ease with how they are able to obtain it, that is, the lack of real oversight, and the total denials they are obtaining it. With the volume of data they can get their hands on and that the secrecy of it all precludes any meaningful data access policies, data retention policies, etc., the ease of corruptibility is what makes the data and its collection so dangerous.

    Why I am okay with Snowden’s release of information is what I consider the very wrongly decided court decisions that took bits and pieces of information that had gotten out that the Capt. Renaults and the rest of our leaders should have been upset with years ago, and reclassified them and kept the whole thing away from court oversight.

    In that case, I am glad if Snowden brings Room 641A back to light.

    What’s really going to happen though is pretty much nothing. The discussion won’t focus on how and why the court decisions went so wrong, and the discussion won’t focus on how we end this stupid war on the American People in the name of the war on Terror.

    The discussion should be around pulling back and dialing down TSA, DHS, and yes, Prism.

    Is that even possible given how no politician wants to be skewered when the next bomb goes off for being soft on terrorism?

    And that’s where the questions of both Obama and Al Franken (who I love so much) should be focused. Not on whether they believe Prism has been used in good faith, but how do they see the war on the American People ending if they don’t stand up against Prism now, regardless of the good uses (as they see them).

  13. sailor1031 says

    There doesn’t appear to be any legal way that this could have been brought to public attention since the program(s) are classified “secret”.

    A little OT; when I worked in government a man I knew wrote a report which a secretary rubber-stamped “secret” and he (the author) wasn’t allowed to read his own report since he didn’t have high enough clearance.

  14. ollie says

    No, not a better class of person: someone who had a bit more experience and who better understood the issues.

    Think of it this way: if one of your typical freshman told you that relativity was wrong because it didn’t make sense to him, how seriously would you take his criticism?

    What about, say, a freshman fundamentalist who accused “arrogant” physics professors of professional incompetence because they didn’t teach Biblical physics? Sure, there would be thousands who would view such a person as a hero, when in fact they were just another person who didn’t know what they were talking about.

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    … laws regarding the handling of classified information do not include an exemption such as “unless the classified information you are disclosing is illegal/unconstitutional/etc.”

    I know even less about US laws on such things, but have the distinct impression that the whole problem of “unconstitutional/illegal orders” has been swept under the rug from day one by legislators, and generally unconsidered (disallowed as a defense, as apparently currently experienced by B. Manning) by US courts.

    So, you’re probably right, in that acting to prevent violations of the Constitution almost certainly has not been codified as even the penumbra of a loophole. I just wanted to point out that pointing fingers at Snowden turns those fingers away from the major criminal(s) in this case.

  16. Mano Singham says

    I have had students (and good ones!) who said they did not believe in the theory of relativity. I treat their criticisms with respect and ask them to show me why they think so and explain to them why I think they are wrong. I do not tell them that elements of the theory are secret and since they do not know them, they are not competent to judge.

    So I don’t think your analogy holds because the theory of relativity is not a secret. We can debate its merits openly.

    A more appropriate analogy is if I withheld from students certain knowledge about the theory of relativity (assuming that that knowledge was not in the public domain) and yet evaluated them on the basis of the knowledge I did not give them. Then it would be perfectly justified for a freshman student to reveal that secret knowledge so that students could judge for themselves if I was judging them fairly.

  17. ollie says

    I was referring to something different: an inexperienced person has less of an understanding of why secret information is secret than an experienced one.

  18. Mano Singham says

    That may be true, but by that argument if anyone superior to you says that something is secret, then you should never reveal it, even if you feel that it is criminal. Under what circumstances would whistleblowing be an acceptable option, because such an action always involves using one’s own judgment that something that is secret should not be.

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