The menace posed by the best and the brightest

The late David Halberstam was an excellent journalist who worked within the establishment framework. His best know work is The Best and the Brightest (1972) that has become a classic in the genre of modern political history. It exposed how a group of elite, Ivy League-educated people in the highest reaches of government during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations led the US government into the criminal disaster that we now know as the Vietnam war.

The book was meant to be a cautionary tale of the danger of placing our trust in people who have a lot of formal education coupled with an overweening sense of their own cleverness and thus manage to persuade themselves and others that they are the ones who know what is best for the country and are willing to even secretly pursue policies and actions that under the bright light of public scrutiny are revealed to be too clever by half. We were told to trust them, that they knew what they were doing, and that was our biggest mistake.

We are now seeing a similar situation exposed by Edward Snowden. And the current crop of ‘the best and the brightest’, just like the ones before, does not like having its nakedness exposed by the riff-raff.

Jack Shafer develops what I had written about before, about what the personalized attacks on Snowden reveal about the people making them.

Leakers like Snowden, Manning and Ellsberg don’t merely risk being called narcissists, traitors or mental cases for having liberated state secrets for public scrutiny. They absolutely guarantee it. In the last two days, the New York Times’s David Brooks, Politico’s Roger Simon, the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen and others have vilified Snowden for revealing the government’s aggressive spying on its own citizens, calling him self-indulgent, a loser and a narcissist.

Yet even as the insults pile up and the amateur psychoanalysis intensifies, keep in mind that Snowden’s leak has more in common with the standard Washington leak than should make the likes of Brooks, Simon and Cohen comfortable. Without defending Snowden for breaking his vow to safeguard secrets, he’s only done in the macro what the national security establishment does in the micro every day of the week to manage, manipulate and influence ongoing policy debates. Keeping the policy leak separate from the heretic leak is crucial to understanding how these stories play out in the press. [My italics-MS]

Shafer then goes on to describe the many leaks that high officials make in order to manipulate the public and says:

The willingness of the government to punish leakers is inversely proportional to the leakers’ rank and status, which is bad news for someone so lacking in those attributes as Edward Snowden. But as the Snowden prosecution commences, we should question his selective prosecution. Let’s ask, as Isikoff did of the Obama administration officials who leaked to Woodward, why Snowden is singled out for punishment when he’s essentially done what the insider dissenters did when they spoke with Risen and Lichtblau in 2005 about an invasive NSA program. He deserves the same justice and the same punishment they received.

Kirsten Powers also describes the nature of the establishment attacks on Snowden as being perceived as being leaked by the ‘wrong’ kind of person.

Hell hath no fury like the Washington establishment scorned.

Since Edward Snowden came forward to identify himself as the leaker of the National Security Agency spying programs, the D.C. mandarins have been working overtime to discredit the man many view as a hero for revealing crucial information the government had wrongfully kept secret. Apparently, if you think hiding information about spying on Americans is bad, you are misguided. The real problem is that Snowden didn’t understand that his role is to sit and be quiet while the “best and the brightest” keep Americans in the dark about government snooping on private citizens.

When one major institution (the Washington media establishment) so seamlessly partners with another (the U.S. government) in trashing a whistleblower, it’s not hard to understand why Americans might be jaded. The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin wrote that Snowden is “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell complained about Snowden’s naiveté and “maturity level,” as if only a child would believe the government should be transparent about its activity. Politico’s Roger Simon called Snowden “the slacker who came in from the cold,” with “all the qualifications to become a grocery bagger.” That people feel comfortable sneering about grocery workers—a respectable job—and writing off Snowden’s years working as a security guard as sloth tells you a bit about the culture of the nation’s capital, doesn’t it?

But he didn’t finish high school! Actually, Snowden earned a general equivalency diploma (GED), but that hasn’t stopped his detractors from spitting this accusation like an epithet. On Wednesday’s Late Show With David Letterman, Tom Brokaw dismissed Snowden as “a high school dropout who is a military washout.” On Tuesday, Sen. Susan Collins, mocked the 29-year-old man as “a high school drop-out who had little maturity [and] had not successfully completed anything he had undertaken.” Yes, if only he had gone to Harvard or Yale like our last four presidents, who have done such a bang-up job running the country.

Edward Snowden did not reveal just a massive secret government surveillance program. He has also revealed the extent of the contempt that our elites have for ordinary people with little formal education who do ordinary jobs but get ideas above their assigned station in life. Mitt Romney’s mistake with his dismissal of the 47% was that it became public and escaped from the secret consensus shared by our elites.


  1. machintelligence says

    He was also vilified for being a computer nerd. As attempts at character assassination go, these seem like pretty weak tea. Also, there has been no criticism of the (presumable) idiots, both individual and corporate, who hired him and were responsible for overseeing his work.

  2. slc1 says

    Re machintelligence @ #1

    Given Snowden’s apparent lack of qualifications for the jobs he was assigned to, it would seem that investigation of the hiring practices of Booz-Allen is in order. Here’s a guy who was allegedly being paid $200,000/year by Booz-Allen. Rather then bad mouthing Snowden, it would seem more productive to investigate the muck da mucks at Booz-Allen and have them explain what it was about Snowden that made him worth $200,000/year.

  3. atheist says

    I suppose one could attack whoever hired and/or oversaw Snowden. Or, we could just admit to ourselves that college degrees are overrated.

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