Edward Snowden

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Mentioned yesterday there were four questions submitted to Julian Assange’s Reddit Ask Me Anything that I hoped the Wikileaks EIC would address. The layout for the AMAs is sort of a mess, but from what I can quickly ascertain, it seems he responded to just one of them, though a good one. Assange skirts much of the inquiry’s substance, most likely because it speaks uncomfortable truths to his own stated philosophies about privacy, but it’s still worth reading.

The exchange:

Question:

People frequently group you together with Edward Snowden because you’ve both released classified American documents. But your motivations and philospophies couldn’t be more different.

Snowden claims to fight for privacy. He’s called privacy the bedrock of freedom, that one cannot be free without privacy.

You have called privacy obsolete and unsustainable. You’ve said that privacy has no inherent value. You appear to believe privacy and freedom are incompatible, that you cannot be free if others can keep secrets from you. You’ve published the credit card numbers, social security numbers, medical information, and sexual preferences of individuals of zero public interest. Two of your most recent publications are the personal Gmail inboxes of civilians, exactly the sort of thing Snowden has tried to protect.

Can you convince me that you’re right and Snowden’s wrong?

Julian Assange:

Edward Snowden is a whistleblower. He committed an important and brave act, which we supported. I worked with our legal team to get him out of Hong Kong and to a place of asylum. No other media organization did that. Not the Guardian, which had been publishing his material. Nor did Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, not even any institution from a government. It was WikiLeaks that acted. A small, investigative publisher, which understands computer security, cryptography, the National Security Agency, which I have been publishing about for more than ten years, and asylum law, because of my situation.

We couldn’t have a situation where Edward Snowden ends up in a position like Chelsea Manning and is used as a general deterrent to other whistleblowers stepping forward. Edward would have been imprisoned at any moment in Hong Kong and would have then been turned into the propaganda that if you’re trying to do something important as a whistleblower, your voice will stopped and you’ll be placed in prison in very adverse conditions.

We wanted the opposite. We wanted a general incentive for others to step forward. That’s for philosophical reasons, because we understand the threat of mass surveillance, but it’s also understandable for institutional reasons. WikiLeaks specializes in publishing what whistleblowers reveal and if there’s a chill on sources stepping forward, that’s not good for us as an institution. On the other hand, if people see yes, it’s good for sources to step forward, then there will be more of them.

On full publication versus the sadly limited publication of Snowden files–Edward Snowden hasn’t really had a choice. He has had various views that have shifted over time, but he is in a position where we made sure he had given the documents on him to journalists before he left Hong Kong. Both Edward Snowden and I assessed that it would be a dangerous bait for him to be carrying laptops with NSA material on it, as he transited through Russia to Latin America. That might be something that would cause the Russians to hold him. So he and we made sure he had nothing. Since the point of those initial disclosures, Edward Snowden hasn’t been able to control how his publications have been used.

Edward has been a very important voice in talking about the importance of different aspects of them, but he has had no control. The result is that more than 97% of the Snowden documents have been censored. Enormously important material censored and while there have been some good journalists working on them, and I think Glenn Greenwald is one of the best journalists publishing in the United States, you have to have hundreds of people and engineers working on material like this to understand what is going on.

We have a different position to those media organizations that have effectively privatized and limited that material. You can’t say that the initial publications had all the important docs. There have been more publications slowly as time goes by. Even some within the past two months. Those publications, for example, include ways to find interception sites in the United States used by the NSA. There are covert procedures to visiting those sites. Now, if those had been released in 2013, investigative journalists and individuals could have gone to those sites before there was a physical cover-up. That’s true in the United States and it’s true in Europe and elsewhere. I am sad about how the impact of the Snowden archive has been minimized, as a result of privatizing and censoring nearly all of it.•

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We should always err on the side of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden because they’ve traditionally served an important function in our democracy, but that doesn’t mean the former NSA employee has changed America for the better–or much at all.

In the wake of 9/11, most in the country wanted to feel safe and were A-OK with the government taking liberties (figuratively and literally). Big Brother became the favorite sibling. The White House position and policy has shifted somewhat since Snowden went rogue, but I believe from here on in we’re locked in a cat-and-mouse game among government, corporations and citizens, with surveillance and leaks a permanent part of the landscape. The technology we have–and the even more powerful tools we’ll have in the future–almost demands such an arrangement. We’re all increasingly inside a machine now, one that moves much faster than legislation. That’s the new abnormal.

The Financial Times set up an interview with Snowden conducted by Alan Rusbridger, former EIC of the Guardian, the publication that broke the story. The subject is unsurprisingly much more hopeful about the impact of his actions than I am. An excerpt:

Alan Rusbridger:

It’s now, what, three years since the revelations?

Edward Snowden:

It’s been more than three years. June 2013.

Alan Rusbridger:

Tell me first how the world has changed since then. What’s changed as a result of what you did, from your perspective? Not from your personal life, but the story you revealed.

Edward Snowden:

The main thing is that our culture has changed, right? There are many different ways of approaching this. One is we look at the structural changes, we look at the policy changes, we look at the fact that the day the Guardian published the story, for example, the entire establishment leaped out of their chairs and basically said ‘This is untrue, it’s not right, there’s nothing to see here’. You know, ‘Nobody’s listening to your phone calls’, as the president said very early on. Do you remember? I think he sort of spoke with the voice of the establishment in all of these different countries here, saying, ‘I think we’ve drawn the right balance’.

Then you move on to later in the same year when the very first court verdicts began to come forward and they found that these programmes were ‘unlawful, likely unconstitutional’ — that’s a direct quote — and ‘Orwellian in their scope’ — again a quote. And this trend continued in many different courts. The government realising that these programmes could not be legally sustained and would have to be amended if they were to keep any of these powers at all. And to avoid a precedent that they would consider damaging, which is that the Supreme Court basically locks the power of mass surveillance away from them forever, they need a pretty substantial pivot, whereby January of 2014 the president of the US said that, well, of course you could never condone what I did. He believes that this has made us stronger as a nation and that he was going to be recommending changes to a law of Congress, which then later, again this is Congress, they don’t do anything quickly, they actually did amend the law.

Now, they would not likely have made these changes to law on their own without the involvement of the Courts. But these are all three branches of government in the US completely changing their position. In March of 2013, the Supreme Court flushed the case, right, saying that this is a state secret, we can’t talk about it and you can’t prove that you were spied on. Then suddenly when everyone can prove that they had been spied on, we see that the law changed. So that’s sort of the policy side of looking at that. And people can look at the substance there and say, ‘This is significant’. Even though it didn’t solve the problem, it’s a start and, more importantly, it empowers people, it empowers the public; it shows that, for the first time in four years, we can actually start to impose more oversight on intelligence agencies, on spies, rather than giving them a free pass to do whatever, simply because we’re scared, which is understandable but clearly not ethical.

As online threats race up national security agendas and governments look at ways of protecting their national infrastructures a cyber arms race is causing concern to the developed world. Then there’s the other way of looking at it, which is in terms of public awareness.•

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Edward Snowden, that mixed blessing, isn’t Joseph K., as he wasn’t traduced, but there is something Kafkaesque about his shape-shifting transition into a virtual citizen, a ghost in the machine, a BeamPro boulevardier who rolls around art museums and TED gatherings.

The former NSA contract employee is now a disembodied voice of the people–some of them–who’s found a workaround for a cancelled passport: He’s sort of become a robot. It’s no small irony that the one who struck back against the unholy marriage of Cold War politics and Digital Age tools now finds himself inside Putin’s oppressive Soviet throwback when at home and a piece of cutting-edge technology when he goes out. Despite the awareness he fostered with his Paul Revere-ish leaks–“The Machines are coming!“–it seems like we’re all headed for at least the latter part of that equation.

In Andrew Rice’s excellent New York article about his encounters with the world’s most-wanted leaker, or at least his telepresence, the writer acknowledges the strangest thing about of the whole disembodied setup is how easy it is to forget that the Snowden he meets is a robot. An excerpt:

Over the past few months, we have encountered one another with some regularity, and while I can’t claim to know him as a flesh-and-blood person, I’ve seen his intellect in its native habitat. He is at once exhaustively loquacious and reflexively self-protective, prone to hide behind smooth oratory. But occasionally, he has let down his guard and talked like a human being. “I’m able to actually have influence on the issues that I care about, the same influence I didn’t have when I was sitting at the NSA,” Snowden told me. He claims that many of his former colleagues would agree that the programs he exposed were wrongfully intrusive. “But they have no voice, they have no clout,” he said. “One of the weirder things that’s come out of this is the fact that I can actually occupy that role.” Even as the White House and the intelligence chiefs brand him a criminal, he says, they are constantly forced to contend with his opinions. “They’re saying they still don’t like me — tut-tut, very bad — but they recognize that it was the right decision, that the public should have known about this.”

Needless to say, it is initially disorienting to hear messages of usurpation emitted, with a touch of Daft Punk–ish reverb, from a $14,000 piece of electronic equipment. Upon meeting the Snowbot, people tend to become flustered — there he is, that face you know, looking at you. That feeling, familiar to anyone who’s spotted a celebrity in a coffee shop, is all the more strange when the celebrity is supposed to be banished to the other end of the Earth. And yet he is here, occupying the same physical space. The technology of “telepresence” feels different from talking to a computer screen; somehow, the fact that Snowden is standing in front of you, looking straight into your eyes, renders the experience less like enhanced telephoning and more like primitive teleporting. Snowden sometimes tries to put people at ease by joking about his limitations, saying humans have nothing to fear from robots so long as we have stairs and Wi-Fi dead zones in elevators. Still, he is quite good at maneuvering on level ground, controlling the robot’s movements with his keyboard like a gamer playing Minecraft. The eye contact, however, is an illusion—Snowden has learned to look straight into his computer’s camera instead of focusing on the faces on his screen.

Here’s the really odd thing, though: After a while, you stop noticing that he is a robot, just as you have learned to forget that the disembodied voice at your ear is a phone. Snowden sees this all the time, whether he is talking to audiences in auditoriums or holding meetings via videoconference. “There’s always that initial friction, that moment where everybody’s like, ‘Wow, this is crazy,’ but then it melts away,” Snowden told me, and after that, “regardless of the fact that the FBI has a field office in New York, I can be hanging out in New York museums.” The technology feels irresistible, inevitable. He’s the first robot I ever met; I doubt he’ll be the last.

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I don’t trust the NSA or Oliver Stone with our information. 

It was clear long before Edward Snowden to any American paying attention that our government had overreached into our privacy in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s not that there aren’t real dangers that need to be investigated, but treating every citizen like a threat is another kind of threat.

Stone is a very gifted filmmaker whose work seems informed by chemicals he (over-)experimented with as a youth. It’s galling that so many took his overheated JFK hokum seriously for so long and that some still do. His films are interesting provided no one uses them as history lessons.

That means the director’s upcoming take on Snowden should be…interesting? Well, let’s not prejudge. 

Stephen Galloway of the Hollywood Reporter has an article about Stone’s paranoid approach to the making of the movie, which might be warranted in this case. He recently said this of the production: “We moved to Germany, because we did not feel comfortable in the U.S….we felt like we were at risk here.” An excerpt:

When Stone (whose films include Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Wall Street) was first approached to make the movie, he hesitated. He had been working on another controversial subject, about the last few years in the life of Martin Luther King Jr., and did not immediately wish to tackle something that incendiary again.

“Glenn Greenwald [the journalist who worked with Poitras to break the Snowden story] asked me some advice and I just wanted to stay away from controversy,” he said. “I didn’t want this. Be that as it may, a couple of months later, the Russian lawyer for Snowden contacts me via my producer. The Russian lawyer told me to come to Russia and wanted me to meet him. One thing led to another, and basically I got hooked.”

In Moscow, Stone met multiple times with Snowden, who has been living in exile in Russia since evading the U.S. government’s attempts to arrest him for espionage. “He’s articulate, smart, very much the same,” he said. “I’ve been seeing him off and on for a year — actually, more than that. I saw him last week or two weeks ago to show him the final film.”

He added: “He is consistent: he believes so thoroughly in reform of the Internet that he has devoted himself to this cause … Because of the Russian hours, he stays up all night. He’s a night owl, and he’s always in touch [with the outside world], and he’s working on some kind of constitution for the Internet with other people. So he’s very busy. And he stays in that 70-percent-computer world. He’s on another planet that way. His sense of humor has gotten bigger, his tolerance. He’s not really in Russia in his mind — he’s in some planetary position up there. And Lindsay Mills, the woman he’s loved for 10 years — really, it’s a serious affair — has moved there to be with him.”•

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Because things aren’t murky enough, Oliver Stone is bringing his paranoid onslaught of fact and fiction to the topic of Edward Snowden, a mixed bag to begin with. Our default mode should be supporting whistleblowers, but this guy doesn’t make it easy. He told us what was fairly obvious in the age of the Patriot Act, and the information won’t really change much (though Snowden can’t be blamed for that). In this time, Americans are more afraid of terrorism than they are of losing liberties, wanting a brother to take care of them even if it’s Big Brother. It never was a lack of knowledge that allowed surveillance to take hold but a lack of will. Beyond that, government spying will likely end up being the least of the problem, with corporations and rogue groups and individuals far more of a threat.

InThe Hacking of Hollywood,” a very wonderful Backchannel piece, David Kushner writes of an ironic twist: The auteur is trying to prevent his film about the leaker from being leaked. The article retreats to the 2004 origin story of interlopers entering the Dream Factory, making its way forward to the Fappening, a dark weekend that was revealing in more ways than one. Kushner stresses that no great technical skills are usually required for such breaches. The opening: 

It’s a cold day in Munich, and Oliver Stone, Hollywood’s most notorious director, is staring down the world’s most notorious hacker, Edward Snowden — or, at least, the actor who’s portraying him, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Stone’s here filming his controversial biopic of Snowden. The film, which will be released in spring 2016, traces the whistleblower’s rise from lowly army enlistee to the National Security Agency contractor who exposed the U.S. government’s classified surveillance program.

But Stone isn’t just concerned about capturing the saga behind Snowden’s incredible leaks. He wants to make sure that no hacker comes after his film and leaks its secrets before the movie’s release. “It’s a major concern for every filmmaker,” he tells me, during a break from shooting. And it’s one that’s even more pronounced with a movie that promises to reveal more about Snowden than the world yet knows. “If you can hack his story,” Stone says with caution, “it would be a big prize.” In a way, Stone is making a meta-movie that no one has seen before, building a firewall around a film whose subject is an icon of bad infosec.

This explains the stealthy guy with the Fu Manchu beard milling around the set. He’s Ralph Echemendia, Hollywood’s go-to digital bodyguard, a reformed hacker from the dark side who now helps filmmakers, celebrities, and moguls keep their valuable data secure. It’s a challenge that’s only compounding as Hollywood — like the rest of the world — moves more and more of its content and communications online. “The concern is a lack of control,” Echemendia tells me.

Stone says such precautions, while new, are “the wave of the future.”•

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I seriously doubt Edward Snowden will be used as a pawn in the current gamesmanship between Russia and much of the rest of the world. He’s really not that valuable in any practical sense. He proved something–that the U.S. became a surveillance state in the wake of 9/11–which was already pretty obvious to everyone, and apparently approved of by most Americans. And I don’t see how his revelations will change much (except superficially) since technology isn’t going to move sideways or backwards. Regardless of laws, there will be more spying and more leaks proving it. At the same time, I believe in strong protections for whistleblowers who are not gathering information for their own spying purposes.

Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Oscar-winning Citizenfour director Laura Poitras just did an AMA at Reddit. Some Snowden exchanges follow.

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Question:

Can you explain what your life in Moscow is like?

Edward Snowden:

Moscow is the biggest city in Europe. A lot of people forget that. Shy of Tokyo, it’s the biggest city I’ve ever lived in. I’d rather be home, but it’s a lot like any other major city.

Question:

Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov has described your daily life as circumscribed by Russian state security services, which he said control the circumstances of your life there. Is this accurate? What are your interactions with Russian state security like? With Russian government representatives generally?

Edward Snowden:

Good question, thanks for asking.

The answer is “of course not.” You’ll notice in all of these articles, the assertions ultimately come down to speculation and suspicion. None of them claim to have any actual proof, they’re just so damned sure I’m a Russian spy that it must be true.

And I get that. I really do. I mean come on – I used to teach “cyber counterintelligence” (their term) at DIA.

But when you look at in aggregate, what sense does that make? If I were a russian spy, why go to Hong Kong? It’s would have been an unacceptable risk. And further – why give any information to journalists at all, for that matter, much less so much and of such importance? Any intelligence value it would have to the russians would be immediately compromised.

If I were a spy for the russians, why the hell was I trapped in any airport for a month? I would have gotten a parade and a medal instead.

The reality is I spent so long in that damn airport because I wouldn’t play ball and nobody knew what to do with me. I refused to cooperate with Russian intelligence in any way (see my testimony to EU Parliament on this one if you’re interested), and that hasn’t changed.

At this point, I think the reason I get away with it is because of my public profile. What can they really do to me? If I show up with broken fingers, everybody will know what happened.

Question:

Don’t you fear that at some point you will be used as leverage in a negotiation? eg; “if you drop the sanctions we give you Snowden”

Edward Snowden:

It is very realistic that in the realpolitik of great powers, this kind of thing could happen. I don’t like to think that it would happen, but it certainly could.

At the same time, I’m so incredibly blessed to have had an opportunity to give so much back to the people and internet that I love. I acted in accordance with my conscience and in so doing have enjoyed far more luck than any one person can ask for. If that luck should run out sooner rather than later, on balance I will still – and always – be satisfied.

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Question:

How can we make sure that people still want to leak important information when everyone who does so puts the rest of their lives at stake?

Edward Snowden:

Whistleblower protection laws, a strong defense of the right for someone charged with political crimes to make any defense they want (currently in the US, someone charged with revealing classified information is entirely prohibited from arguing before the jury that the programs were unlawful, immoral, or otherwise wrongful), and support for the development of technically and legally protected means of communications between sources and journalists.

The sad truth is that societies that demand whistleblowers be martyrs often find themselves without either, and always when it matters the most.

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Question:

Mr. Snowden, if you had a chance to do things over again, would you do anything differently? If so, what?

Edward Snowden:

I would have come forward sooner. I talked to Daniel Ellsberg about this at length, who has explained why more eloquently than I can.

Had I come forward a little sooner, these programs would have been a little less entrenched, and those abusing them would have felt a little less familiar with and accustomed to the exercise of those powers. This is something we see in almost every sector of government, not just in the national security space, but it’s very important:

Once you grant the government some new power or authority, it becomes exponentially more difficult to roll it back. Regardless of how little value a program or power has been shown to have (such as the Section 215 dragnet interception of call records in the United States, which the government’s own investigation found never stopped a single imminent terrorist attack despite a decade of operation), once it’s a sunk cost, once dollars and reputations have been invested in it, it’s hard to peel that back.

Don’t let it happen in your country.•

 

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Richard Feynman wasn’t the only physicist who emerged from World War II with regrets about his role. Freeman Dyson looks back in anger, anger at himself, believing he failed morally to speak to certain life-and-death decisions, which has made him a Snowden supporter. From a new Paradigm interview with Dyson which was conducted by Theo Constantinou and Lee Nentwig:

Theo Constantinou:

In Jörg Friedrich’s book, The Fire, you were quoted as saying:

“I felt sickened by what I knew. Many times I decided I had a moral obligation to run out into the streets and tell the British people what stupidities were being done in their name. But I never had the courage to do it. I sat in my office until the end, carefully calculating how to murder most economically another hundred thousand people.”

WWII was in full force and you were around twenty years old and making decisions that, from what you say, cost thousands of people their lives. Seventy years later, reflecting back on your actions and the actions of the day, what insight can you give to those facing similar moral dilemmas in the current global climate?

Freeman Dyson:

The amazing thing is how little has changed. There was an American general, James Cartwright, just about a year ago, who was in charge of intelligence in Afghanistan and he wrote a secret report about the deficiencies of intelligence in Afghanistan which was essentially telling the government the idiocies that were being done, and fortunately it was leaked and so now it is out in the public. It was quite amazing to me how much the same it was as to the situation I was in seventy years before. In Afghanistan you had this enormous apparatus for collecting intelligence, which was just what we had in bomber command, and now in Afghanistan you have satellites over head and drones beneath the satellites and then airplanes and people on the ground, all collecting information and sending it all over to some building in Virginia where there were a thousand people analyzing the information. So I was one of them, I was an analyst sitting at bomber command and analyzing all of this information. The general said in his report that all of this was wonderful, that information was being collected efficiently and the analysts were working very hard in understanding it, but nothing ever went back. There was no flow of information to the people that actually needed it and could use it. It was exactly the same problem. We were actually not allowed to talk to the crewmen who flew the airplanes, they weren’t cleared to hear all of the secret stuff, and they were the only people who actually could have used it. So that’s the way it is, it hasn’t changed.

The whole drone program is very troubling, of course. People being killed in this new mechanical way so that you don’t even have to go out there and fight, you can just sit comfortably in Virginia and aim the bombs. That is a bad situation.

So I enormously admire Edward Snowden, he has really done us a great service. We need more people like that … that’s what I wasn’t brave enough to do. I would have been more or less in his situation had I gone out in the streets and shouted, I would have been locked up for sure.•

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Edward Snowden is trying but not traitorous. For all his klutziness, I think he’s a whistleblower in the truest sense, though I doubt his revelations–if that’s what they were–will have much impact. The tools at hand and those to come mean surveillance by the government and leaks by individuals are a permanent part of the landscape. It’s the new abnormal. A discussion of the Internet’s power as oppressor and liberator from a very good interview with Snowden by Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen of the Nation:

The Nation:

This makes us wonder whether or not the Internet actually enhances freedom of speech, and thus democracy? Maybe instead it abets invasion of privacy, reckless opinions, misinformation. What are the Internet’s pluses and minuses for the kind of society that you and The Nation seek?

Edward Snowden:

I would say the first key concept is that, in terms of technological and communication progress in human history, the Internet is basically the equivalent of electronic telepathy. We can now communicate all the time through our little magic smartphones with people who are anywhere, all the time, constantly learning what they’re thinking, talking about, exchanging messages. And this is a new capability even within the context of the Internet. When people talk about Web 2.0, they mean that when the Internet, the World Wide Web, first became popular, it was one way only. People would publish their websites; other people would read them. But there was no real back and forth other than through e-mail. Web 2.0 was what they called the collaborative web—Facebook, Twitter, the social media. What we’re seeing now, or starting to see, is an atomization of the Internet community. Before, everybody went only to a few sites; now we’ve got all these boutiques. We’ve got crazy little sites going up against established media behemoths. And increasingly we’re seeing these ultra-partisan sites getting larger and larger readerships because people are self-selecting themselves into communities. I describe it as tribalism because they’re very tightly woven communities. Lack of civility is part of it, because that’s how Internet tribes behave. We see this more and more in electoral politics, which have become increasingly poisonous.

All this is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it helps people establish what they value; they understand the sort of ideas they identify with. The curse is that they aren’t challenged in their views. The Internet becomes an echo chamber. Users don’t see the counterarguments. And I think we’re going to see a move away from that, because young people—digital natives who spend their life on the 
Internet—get saturated. It’s like a fashion trend, and becomes a sign of a lack of sophistication. On the other hand, the Internet is there to fill needs that people have for information and socialization. We get this sort of identification thing going on nowadays because it’s a very fractious time. We live in a time of troubles.”

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Legislation isn’t going to curb government surveillance nor will prosecutions put a halt to individuals hacking and leaking such information. The tools have become greater than the law–and they will grow even greater still. The other reason we won’t stop snooping is because most of us like it, not just the feeling of protection it gives us in these supposedly scary times, but also the acknowledgement that attends being monitored. We like to watch, and we like being watched. How important we must be. From a David Cole post at The New York Review of Books about Laura Poitras’ Snowden Affair documentary, Citizenfour:

“Snowden’s effort to tame his unruly hair also reveals the self-consciousness that seems to have pervaded every step of his decision to disclose the NSA files. He knows, of course, that he is being videotaped; he invited Poitras in, after all. (In addition to recording his every waking hour in the hotel room, she produced on the spot a twelve-minute film that was released the same week as the first disclosures, which introduced Snowden to the world as the NSA leaker.) Poitras does her best to conceal her presence as the filmmaker, but everyone involved knows they are being filmed, and that someday this will be shown on movie screens around the world. As a result, there are relatively few instances of real candor.

In this respect, Citizenfour unwittingly reflects the tenor of the digital age not just in its subject matter, but in its style. The film’s content concerns the ability of the government in the twenty-first century to monitor all of us at all times. The goal of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs is to ‘collect it all,’ as the agency itself declared in a PowerPoint slide leaked by Snowden. Technology has made that goal possible in ways that could hardly be imagined a decade ago. Snowden’s disclosures have put the world on notice that these are not abstract or speculative dangers.

But as Poitras’s real-time filmmaking itself reminds us, it’s not just the NSA and its sophisticated computers that make dragnet data collection possible. It’s also a defining feature of a world in which we are personally and collectively complicit in the recording of virtually everything we do.”

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Information may not want to be free from a financial standpoint, but it does want to be unfettered, with centralized, controlled data no longer a possibility in this connected age. That’s the reality made clear by the Edward Snowden leaks, even if his NSA revelations weren’t exactly a shocker to anyone with open eyes. In many cases this new normal will be a good thing and in some a bad one. But no legislation will really stop it.

Further complicating matters is that most Americans don’t seem to mind if their government snoops on them in the (supposed) name of protecting them. In these scary times, they want a big brother, even if it’s Big Brother.

From “The Most Wanted Man in the World,” James Bamford’s Wired cover article, a passage about a possible second leaker, which is likely though Snowden neither confirms nor denies:

“And there’s another prospect that further complicates matters: Some of the revelations attributed to Snowden may not in fact have come from him but from another leaker spilling secrets under Snowden’s name. Snowden himself adamantly refuses to address this possibility on the record. But independent of my visit to Snowden, I was given unrestricted access to his cache of documents in various locations. And going through this archive using a sophisticated digital search tool, I could not find some of the documents that have made their way into public view, leading me to conclude that there must be a second leaker somewhere. I’m not alone in reaching that conclusion. Both Greenwald and security expert Bruce Schneier—who have had extensive access to the cache—have publicly stated that they believe another whistle-blower is releasing secret documents to the media.

In fact, on the first day of my Moscow interview with Snowden, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel comes out with a long story about the NSA’s operations in Germany and its cooperation with the German intelligence agency, BND. Among the documents the magazine releases is a top-secret ‘Memorandum of Agreement’ between the NSA and the BND from 2002. ‘It is not from Snowden’s material,’ the magazine notes.

Some have even raised doubts about whether the infamous revelation that the NSA was tapping German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, long attributed to Snowden, came from his trough. At the time of that revelation, Der Spiegel simply attributed the information to Snowden and other unnamed sources. If other leakers exist within the NSA, it would be more than another nightmare for the agency—it would underscore its inability to control its own information and might indicate that Snowden’s rogue protest of government overreach has inspired others within the intelligence community. ‘They still haven’t fixed their problems,’ Snowden says. ‘They still have negligent auditing, they still have things going for a walk, and they have no idea where they’re coming from and they have no idea where they’re going. And if that’s the case, how can we as the public trust the NSA with all of our information, with all of our private records, the permanent record of our lives?'”

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There’s probably something a little wrong with someone who would be a whistleblower, and a free society is usually richer for it. The question to ask about Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald is not whether they’re perfect people, whether they’re heroes, but if America is better off overall for their actions. From Geoff Dyer’s well-written Financial Times review of Greenwald’s new book:

“Ever since then Greenwald, who left the Guardian last October, has had a long line of reporters queueing outside his house in Rio de Janeiro to hear the story (I am one of the guilty parties). Yet he has somehow still managed to make the tale seem fresh. The first third of his book is a genuinely gripping account of his encounters with Snowden. Jason Bourne meets The Social Network: the film rights for this one will sell themselves.

Snowden instructed Greenwald to find the meeting room in his Kowloon hotel with a plastic alligator on the floor. He entered carrying a Rubik’s Cube (‘unsolved’) and responded to a prepared question about the hotel food. Back in Snowden’s room and with their mobile phones in the fridge to prevent prying ears, the former lawyer Greenwald questioned him for five hours. Snowden confessed that some of his political ideas had been gleaned from video games, which provided the lesson ‘that just one person, even the most powerless, can confront great injustice.’

The book adds little fresh material on the NSA but, by putting all the reporting in one place, Greenwald gives an effective sense of the sheer scope of information that is being hoovered up. In one particularly clumsy slide, the NSA brags that its goals include: ‘Sniff it All,’ ‘Know it All,’ ‘Exploit it All,’ ‘Collect it All.’

In selecting Greenwald as his main media interlocutor, Snowden chose well. Greenwald has pursued the story with passion, ensuring that the documents have achieved the widest possible impact. He has also been a tireless defender of Snowden, even after his recent disastrous appearance on a Vladimir Putin call-in show.

But that single-mindedness, mixed with self-regard, is also Greenwald’s great weakness. He lives in a world of black and white, where all government officials are venal and independent journalists are heroes. ‘There are, broadly speaking, two choices: obedience to institutional authority or radical dissent from it,’ he writes.”

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Edward Snowden’s participation in a recent dog-and-pony show about government surveillance with Vladimir Putin confirms what has long been apparent: He’s not the most astute fellow who thinks things through in advance of his actions. Russia under Putin isn’t just a place that spies on journalists but one where they mysteriously wind up dead. But even if Snowden is his own worst enemy, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s an enemy of the state. In his new Foreign Affairs piece, “Live and Let Leak,” Jack Shafer acknowledges that whistleblowers can be dangerous but not nearly as dangerous as a government not held to account by them. An excerpt:

“With little or no public input, the U.S. government has kidnapped suspected terrorists, established secret prisons, performed ‘enhanced’ interrogations, tortured prisoners, and carried out targeted killings. After the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden pilfered hundreds of thousands of documents from the NSA’s computers and released them to journalists last summer, the public learned of additional and potentially dodgy secret government programs: warrantless wiretaps, the weakening of public encryption software, the collection and warehousing of metadata from phones and e-mail accounts, and the interception of raw Internet communications.

The secrecy machine was originally designed to keep the United States’ foes at bay. But in the process, it has transformed itself into an invisible state within a state. Forever discovering new frontiers to patrol, as the Snowden files indicate, the machine molts its skin each season to grow ever larger and more powerful, encountering little resistance from the courts or Congress.”

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who gave us the web and refuses to take it back no matter how nicely we ask, just did an AMA at Reddit. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

Do you ever look at the stuff on the web now and feel like Robert Oppenheimer?

Tim Berners-Lee:

No, not really. The web is a — primarily neutral — tool for humanity. When you look at humanity you see the good and the bad, the wonderful and the awful. A powerful tool can be used for good or ill. Things which are really bad are illegal on the web as they are off it. On balance, communication is good think I think: much of the badness comes from misunderstanding.

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Question:

Edward Snowden- Hero or Villain?

Tim Berners-Lee:

Because he ✓ had no other alternative ✓ engaged as a journalist / with a journalist to be careful of how what was released, and ✓ provided an important net overall benefit to the world, I think he should be protected, and we should have ways of protecting people like him. Because we can try to design perfect systems of government, and they will never be perfect, and when they fail, then the whistleblower may be all that saves society.

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Question:

What are your thoughts on the increased surveillance on internet based mediums like GCHQ’s monitoring of all the Yahoo video chats. Do you personally think it should be controlled, non existent or fine the way it is now?

Tim Berners-Lee:

I think that some monitoring of the net by government agencies is going to be needed to fight crime. We need to invent a new system of checks and balances with unprecedented power to be able to investigate and hold the agencies which do it accountable to the public.

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Question:

What other names did you consider other than the world wide web?

Tim Berners-Lee:

Mine of Information, The Information Mine, The Mesh

None had quite the right ring. I liked WWW partly because I could start global variable names with a W and not have them clash with other peoples’ (in a C world) …in fact I used HT for them)

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Question:

What was one of the things you never thought the internet would be used for, but has actually become one of the main reasons people use the internet?

Tim Berners-Lee:

Kittens.•

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I was neither awed nor upset by Edward Snowden’s NSA leaking for a few reasons: 1) From the moment the Patriot Act passed, we had given our government a “by whatever means necessary” standard, 2) I think most Americans have embraced being watched and feel safer that way (though I don’t), 3) The technological tools of today (and certainly those of tomorrow) cannot be controlled by legislation, 4) Technology is a doubled-edged sword, and the government will be spied on as much as it spies. The power has been disseminated and it will be used, if not always well. To paraphrase Chance Gardner: “We like to watch.”

I have a great fear of imprisoning whistleblowers. We need those who will risk themselves to stop Watergates and Abu Ghraibs. And while Snowden may have stated the obvious and ironically ended up living in Russia, the ultimate surveillance state, he wasn’t wrong.

In a new Ask Me Anything at Reddit, Pentagon Papers leaker and staunch Snowden supporter Daniel Ellsberg answers an oft-asked question: Why should those with nothing to hide fear surveillance?

Question:

I’m curious how you respond when people tell you that ‘they have nothing to hide.’ How do you help them see that this isn’t a valid argument for why they shouldn’t be concerned?

Daniel Ellsberg:

Do they want to live in a democracy, with checks and balances, restraints on Executive power? (They may not feel that they care, though I would say they should; but if they do, it’s relevant to the question that follows). Do they really believe that real democracy is viable, when one branch of government, the Executive, knows or can know every detail of every private communication (or credit card transaction, or movement) of: every journalist; every source to every journalist; every member of Congress and their staffs; every judge, at every level up to the Supreme Court? Do they think that every one of these people ‘has nothing to hide,’ nothing that could be used to blackmail them or manipulate them, or neutralize their dissent to Executive policies, or influence voting behavior? Is investigative journalism, or aggressive Congressional investigation of the Executive, or court restraints on Executive practices, really possible with that amount of transparency to the Executive of their private and professional lives and associations? And without any of those checks, the kind of democracy you have is that of the German Democratic Republic in East Germany, with its Stasi (which had a miniscule fraction of the surveillance capability the NSA has now, but enough to turn a fraction of the population of East Germany into secret Stasi informants).

Might these ‘good, honest citizens’ with nothing to hide ever imagine that they might feel a challenge to be a whistleblower, or a source to a journalist or Congressperson, or engage in associations or parties critical of the current administration? As The Burglary recounts, it was enough to write a letter to a newspaper critical of the FBI to get on J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI list for potential detention or more active surveillance. And once on, hard or impossible to get off. (See ‘no fly’ lists today ).”

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In an addendum of sorts to his recent Wired article, “How the NSA Almost Killed the Internet,” Steven Levy, who wrote one of my favorite books ever, has published some takeaways from his recent conversations with the embattled government organization. One example about a certain freelancer:

They really hate Snowden. The NSA is clearly, madly, deeply furious at the man whose actions triggered the biggest crisis in its history. Even while contending they welcome the debate that now engages the nation, they say that they hate the way it was triggered. The NSA has an admittedly insular culture — the officials described it as almost like a family. Morale suffers when friends and neighbors think that NSA employees are sitting around reading grandma’s email. Also, the agency believes that the Snowden leaks have seriously hurt national security (though others dispute this). NSA officials are infuriated that all this havoc was caused by some random contractor. They suggest that had Snowden been familiar with the culture and the ethos of the agency, understood the level of training undergone by its employees, seen the level of regulations and oversight, he would have been less likely to abscond with all those documents. (Snowden’s interviews indicate otherwise.) Still, they are stunned that someone ‘inside the fence’ would do what Snowden did. Even if Snowden is eventually pardoned, he’d do well to steer clear of Fort Meade.”

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It’s no small irony that the one who most staunchly fought the surveillance state is now the most spied-on, observed person in the world. Edward Snowden is like the rest of us, but writ very, very large. He’s a test case. How does constant observation change us, even if we’re not paying attention to it on the conscious level? From Janet Reitman’s new Rolling Stone article about Snowden and Greenwald:

“[Jesselyn] Radack nevertheless insists that Snowden is not being controlled by the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, nor has he become a Russian spy. “Russia treats its spies much better than leaving them trapped in the Sheremetyevo transit zone for over a month,” Radack recalled Snowden darkly joking to her.

Perhaps though, just because he’s not a spy, says Andrei Soldatov, one of Russia’s leading investigative journalists, doesn’t mean he’s free. ‘It is quite clear that Snowden is being protected by the FSB,’ says Soldatov, co-author of The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB (2010). What this means is that every facet of Snowden’s communications, and his life, is likely being monitored, if invisibly, by the Russian security services. ‘The mansion where he met those whistle-blowers? Rented on behalf of the government. All of the safe houses, apartments and dachas where we’ve traditionally kept defectors are owned by the Russian security services. No one has been able to figure out where he works, if he actually has this job. The FSB would never let him do anything where they couldn’t monitor his communications.’ Even if Snowden were to decide he wanted to go to the U.S. Embassy and turn himself in, ‘it would be difficult for him to find a completely uncontrolled way of communicating with the Americans,’ Soldatov says.

Soldatov believes that Snowden might underestimate how closely he’s being watched, suggesting somewhat of a Truman Show-like existence. ‘To what degree has he been turned into a different person?’ he says. ‘Snowden is not a trained intelligence agent. But those who are can tell you, if you live in a controlled environment, you cease to be truly independent-minded because everyone and everything around you is also controlled. It doesn’t matter if you have your laptop.'”

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Edward Snowden didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already and I doubt he surprised you, either. With our cameras and clouds, everyone is watching everyone and I don’t think legislation will change that no matter how much idealistic people wish it would. But that doesn’t mean Snowden did a horrible thing, either, that he’s a villain just because he’s not a hero. Someone who hates surveillance winding up in Russia has played a bad joke on himself, but his intentions seem to have been noble. Rather than trying to make him Public Enemy # 1, I wish we’d take a moment to have an honest discussion about how much privacy is truly possible in the world we’ve created for ourselves.

Glenn Greenwald and Janine Gibson of the Guardian US, which broke the Snowden story,  just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. Largely like-minded people showed up for it, so there’s sadly mostly congratulation and little debate. But a few exchanges follow.

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Question:

What would you say is the single most shocking revelation that Snowden has leaked and why?

Glenn Greenwald:

The general revelation that the objective of the NSA is literally the elimination of global privacy: ensuring that every form of human electronic communication – not just those of The Terrorists™ – is collected, stored, analyzed and monitored.

The NSA has so radically misled everyone for so long about its true purpose that revealing its actual institutional function was shocking to many, many people, and is the key context for understanding these other specific revelations.

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Question:

Will there be any more groundbreaking leaks? Also, how do you feel about the response from the American people?

Glenn Greenwald:

There are definitely huge new stories to come: many more. I’ve said that from the start every time I was asked and I think people see by now that it’s true. In fact, as Janine said the other day, the documents and newsworthy revelations are so massive that no one news organization can possibly process them all.

As for public opinion, I’m incredibly gratified that Americans, and people around the world, have been so engaged by these issues and that public opinion polls show radical shifts in how people perceive that threats to their privacy/civil liberties from their own government are greater than threats to their safety from The Terrorists.

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Question:

I just realized you’ve done a good job keeping your source out of the limelight, it feels like he’s slowly fading from public consciousness and the real story is gaining traction.

Glenn Greenwald:

This is an astute point, and the credit for this is due to Snowden.

One of the most darkly hilarious things to watch is how government apologists and media servants are driven by total herd behavior: they all mindlessly adopt the same script and then just keep repeating it because they see others doing so and, like parrots, just mimic what they hear.

All whistleblowers are immediately demonized – they have to be “crazy” lest people think that there is something valid to their view that they saw injustices so fundamental that it was worth risking their liberty to expose. That’s why Nixon wanted Daniel Ellsberg’s psychoanalysis files: degrading the psyche of whistleblowers is vital to defending the status quo.

The script used to do this to Snowden was that he was a “fame-seeking narcissist.” Hordes of people who had no idea what “narcissism” even means – and who did not know the first thing about Snowden – kept repeating this word over and over because that became the cliche used to demonize him.

The reason this was darkly hilarious is because there is almost no attack on him more patently invalid than this one. When he came to us, he said: “after I identify myself as the source and explain why I did this, I intend to disappear from media sight, because I know they will want to personalize the story about me, and I want the focus to remain on the substance of NSA disclosures.”

He has been 100% true to his word. Almost every day for four months, I’ve had the biggest TV shows and most influential media stars calling and emailing me, begging to interview Snowden for TV. He has refused every request because he does not want the attention to be on him, but rather on the disclosures that he risked his liberty and even his life to bring to the world.

He could easily have been the most famous person in the world, on TV every day and night. But he chose not to, selflessly, so that he would not distract from the substance of the story.

How the people who spent months screaming “fame whore” and “narcissist” at him don’t fall on the ground in shame is mystifying to me. Few smear campaigns have ever proven more baseless than this one.

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Question:

Why do you think the leak about forwarding data to Israel received relatively little attention compared to other leaks?

Glenn Greenwald:

1) Because it involved “Israel”, which sends some people into fear-based silence; 2) Because it happened in the middle of Syria, which took up most oxygen; 3) Because the New York Times published nothing about it, for ignominious and self-serving reasons highlighted by its own public editor; and 4) Because there is some NSA fatigue: a sense that nothing that is revealed can surprise any longer.

The Times’ excuse for those interested.

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Question:

Is Seymour Hersh right? Is the Osama death story “one big lie”?

Glenn Greenwald:

I don’t know, but I know that Seymour Hersh is responsible for some of the bravest and most important journalism of the last 40 years; has incredibly good sources; and gave one of the best interviews I’ve ever heard on the nature of the US media last week. That doesn’t mean he’s infallible, but I trust him far more than most US journalists deemed Serious and Important (i.e., D.C. courtiers of the royal court).•

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As I pointed out on Sunday, Edward Snowden placed himself in a whole different category when he accepted refuge in Russia. If you hate spying and surveillance, you just don’t do it. Beyond the principal of the thing, there are practical matters. From spy novelist Alex Berenson in the New York Times:

“Faced with the prospect of decades in prison, Mr. Snowden panicked. Instead of waiting for the territory or its masters in Beijing to decide his fate, he packed his laptops and headed for Moscow. Now he gets to see a soft dictatorship (such a lovely phrase) up close. On Sunday, the willful naïfs from WikiLeaks who are ‘helping’ Mr. Snowden said that Sheremetyevo airport would simply be a stopover. But why would the Russian government let him go before it has squeezed him dry? In interviews, Mr. Snowden has said he has plenty of secrets left on his hard drives, and there’s no reason to doubt him. He has already disclosed details of American and British spying on a conference in 2009 in London.

Mr. Snowden has put himself in a terrible spot. Moscow will surely protect him for as long as it feels like irritating Washington. But by the time the Russians are finished sifting through his laptops, he’ll be their spy, whether or not he meant to be. Beijing may have already pulled the same trick; some intelligence officers believe that Chinese spy agencies copied Mr. Snowden’s hard drives during his Hong Kong stay.”

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I haven’t really looked at Edward Snowden as hero or villain from the beginning of the NSA leak controversy. Just a cog in a new machine that American media and citizenry can’t seem to fully comprehend–the machine we’re all living in now. Privacy as we knew it–for individuals, corporations and government–has been permanently left in the past. Everybody’s watching everybody, and it will only get easier to spy. And to use one of President Obama’s favorite phrases, this would be a really good time for a teachable moment, for a frank discussion about the way our society is now, how some things have disappeared into the cloud.

But when you take temporary refuge in Russia, as Snowden has, with that country’s brutal and murderous recent history of oppression of journalists and surveillance of its own citizens, you’ve pretty much permanently ceded the moral high ground.•

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Two Q&As about our leaker culture, in this time when no one–and no entity–is truly private: Edward Snowden taking questions from Guardian readers, and Russell Brand explaining at Gawker why he’s been speaking in support of Bradley Manning.

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From Snowden’s Guardian interview, moderated by Glenn Greenwald:

Question:

US officials say terrorists already altering TTPs because of your leaks, & calling you traitor. Respond?

Edward Snowden:

US officials say this every time there’s a public discussion that could limit their authority. US officials also provide misleading or directly false assertions about the value of these programs, as they did just recently with the Zazi case, which court documents clearly show was not unveiled by PRISM.

Journalists should ask a specific question: since these programs began operation shortly after September 11th, how many terrorist attacks were prevented SOLELY by information derived from this suspicion-less surveillance that could not be gained via any other source? Then ask how many individual communications were ingested to achieve that, and ask yourself if it was worth it. Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, yet we’ve been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it.

Further, it’s important to bear in mind I’m being called a traitor by men like former Vice President Dick Cheney. This is a man who gave us the warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineering a conflict that has killed over 4,400 and maimed nearly 32,000 Americans, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead. Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, Feinstein, and King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.

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From Gawker‘s Brand interview, conducted by Camille Dodero:

Gawker:

Why are you talking about Bradley Manning on your birthday?

Russell Brand:

I don’t know a great deal about international espionage, but sometimes one senses that an issue is drifting in a certain direction, and just by speaking out in a small way, you can make a subtle difference on that perception. Some people have made their mind up no matter what: “Bradley Manning is a traitor because of revealing classified information.” It’s very difficult to impact those people. W.B. Yeats said, The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity. But it might be nice, if I, from my gentle position—bouncing around on the Left elegantly and Englishly—suggest that it doesn’t seem like this person is acting particularly out of self-interest, but rather [Manning] was motivated out of a different kind of patriotism: a genuine love of the people of this country and concern for the people.

Gawker:

So what’s your realistic expectation when you lend your name to a campaign like this?

Russell Brand:

That you’ll get a a degree of abuse from people who are intrinsically opposed. The best you can do is draw the attention of people who are otherwise unsure or curious.

The culture has been expertly constructed so that what’s now regarded as esoteric information is everything except for stuff that directly concerns Kim Kardashian. So everything other than that, you might as well be speaking Aristotle in Greek. For me, I live, to a degree, in popular culture. So if I say, “Oh, that Bradley Manning seems that he was really trying his best to expose information he thought was important to American people regarding what was being done in their name,” all I’m hoping is that people who would otherwise entirely ignore it may have a flickering awareness, and some who would have had a flickering awareness would investigate further.•

 

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One thing lost in the NSA scandal is that while government spying on U.S. citizens may be a permanent part of life, the opposite is equally true: our government can never be sure anymore that it’s operating in secrecy. To some extent, we live in public now. Whether it’s Edward Snowden telling us what’s already obvious, or disclosures that mean something, life is more complicated and transparent because of the tech tools we’ve created, because so much information is out there. A tiny part of it may be dangerous–even treasonbut the great majority–like Snowden’s, will not. But it will occur, it is a part of the foundation now. You can prosecute this person or make a law to limit that entity, but that’s not going to change anyone’s behavior. The tools are there and so is the will to utilize them, whether we’re talking about government agencies or the average person.

But the ceding of privacy by the average American is about something else–a lack of proportion, the fear of the terrible death by terrorism as opposed to a relatively mundane one. It’s about not wanting to experience a loss of control. An analogy: People in the U.S. fear traveling by airplanes far more than by auto, yet there hasn’t been an air fatality from a major airline in the country in more than four years. Check our highway death statistics during the same time frame. From Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic:

“Measured in lives lost, during an interval that includes the biggest terrorist attack in American history, guns posed a threat to American lives that was more than 100 times greater than the threat of terrorism. Over the same interval, drunk driving threatened our safety 50 times more than terrorism

Those aren’t the only threats many times more deadly than terrorism, either.

The CDC estimates that food poisoning kills roughly 3,000 Americans every year. Every year, food-borne illness takes as many lives in the U.S. as were lost during the high outlier of terrorism deaths. It’s a killer more deadly than terrorism. Should we cede a significant amount of liberty to fight it?

Government officials, much of the media, and most American citizens talk about terrorism as if they’re totally oblivious to this context — as if it is different than all other threats we face, in both kind and degree. Since The Guardian and other news outlets started revealing the scope of the surveillance state last week, numerous commentators and government officials, including President Obama himself, have talked about the need to properly ‘balance’ liberty and security. 

The U.S. should certainly try to prevent terrorist attacks, and there is a lot that government can and has done since 9/11 to improve security in ways that are totally unobjectionable. But it is not rational to give up massive amounts of privacy and liberty to stay marginally safer from a threat that, however scary, endangers the average American far less than his or her daily commute.”

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I don’t think former NSA employee Edward Snowden did anything particularly heroic in leaking documents that told every American what we should already know: We gave our government the power to spy on us, and it’s exercising that authority. Surprisingly enough, polls show most Americans actually approve of such governmental snooping.

But as Amy Davidson pointed out yesterday at the New Yorker blog, David Brooks’ take on Snowden’s actions in his New York Times column is shockingly tone-deaf. The piece’s soft-headed sociology and demeaning character study are perplexing enough, but what’s really outrageous is the idea that Snowden should have felt too indebted to his employers who improved his life materially to speak out about what he felt was wrongdoing.

This part: “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.”

Yeah, community college slob, know your place. Be grateful to your betters in the U.S. hierarchy. And, yes, you could just as easily apply Brooks’ logic to Gitmo whistleblowers.

Although this paragraph may be worse: “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.” 

Does Brooks feel the same way about the rights of solitary gun owners? Free speech is messy and inconvenient, but it’s of paramount importance, regardless if we agree with what’s being said or if personally approve of the education and financial standing of the speaker. Disagree vociferously, sure, but don’t preempt disagreement.•

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From Jeffrey Toobin’s post at the New Yorker blog about rogue NSA employee Edward Snowden, which counters the leaker-as-hero chorus:

“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.”

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