Edward Snowden, a twenty-nine-year-old former C.I.A. employee and current government contractor, has leaked news of National Security Agency programs that collect vast amounts of information about the telephone calls made by millions of Americans, as well as e-mails and other files of foreign targets and their American connections. For this, some, including my colleague John Cassidy, are hailing him as a hero and a whistle-blower. He is neither. He is, rather, a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.
Snowden provided information to the Washington Post and the Guardian, which also posted a video interview with him. In it, he describes himself as appalled by the government he served:
The N.S.A. has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your e-mails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your e-mails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.
I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.
What, one wonders, did Snowden think the N.S.A. did? Any marginally attentive citizen, much less N.S.A. employee or contractor, knows that the entire mission of the agency is to intercept electronic communications. Perhaps he thought that the N.S.A. operated only outside the United States; in that case, he hadn’t been paying very close attention. In any event, Snowden decided that he does not “want to live in a society” that intercepts private communications. His latter-day conversion is dubious.
This is . . . actually very well put. While I am open to the possibility that the monitoring of Verizon phone calls and the PRISM program might have been necessary in order to prevent future terrorist attacks, I am uncomfortable with these programs. Very uncomfortable, in fact. That having been written, I am also uncomfortable with vigilantes inside the United States government deciding what will and will not be kept secret. Yes, I am aware of the fact that without Snowden, we might never have known about these programs, or that we may have had to learn about them from another leaker, and obviously, I struggle with the irony of decrying a leak that informed me of a government program I don't particularly like and would like to see come to an end if at all possible. But I will be the first to admit that the United States government needs to be able to keep some secrets in order to be able to do its job, and that people like Edward Snowden make it very difficult for the United States government to carry out its legitimate functions, even as they may shine a spotlight on a disturbing government activity.
I am not as disturbed about agreeing with David Brooks, who also makes some very good points about Snowden:
For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.
He betrayed honesty and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity. He made explicit and implicit oaths to respect the secrecy of the information with which he was entrusted. He betrayed his oaths.
He betrayed his friends. Anybody who worked with him will be suspect. Young people in positions like that will no longer be trusted with responsibility for fear that they will turn into another Snowden.
He betrayed his employers. Booz Allen and the C.I.A. took a high-school dropout and offered him positions with lavish salaries. He is violating the honor codes of all those who enabled him to rise.
He betrayed the cause of open government. Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter. They limit debate a little more.
He betrayed the privacy of us all. If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods.
He betrayed the Constitution. The founders did not create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed. Snowden self-indulgently short-circuited the democratic structures of accountability, putting his own preferences above everything else.
Brooks appears to be much less disturbed about these government programs than I am. But that doesn't make his objections to Snowden's behavior any less valid.