I ran across a post last night that asked why Edward Snowden gets more attention than William Binney, who has warned us about NSA’s domestic spying since he resigned from the agency in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. The post’s author seemed a little indignant that Snowden’s notoriety so surpasses Binney’s. It’s also interesting that no one has called for Binney to be prosecuted as a spy and a traitor, even though the warning from both individuals amounts to the same thing: the NSA is conducting domestic surveillance on a scale that goes way beyond what our Constitution permits. They both say we should be concerned about that.
So why does Snowden receive more attention than Binney? Civil disobedience is more dramatic and even spectacular than simple warnings. Glenn Greenwald, The Jeffersonian, and many others have all issued similar warnings for a long time, but Snowden’s documents from the inside compel your attention. Those formerly top secret documents put the whole catastrophe in writing. They prove what we suspected. The disclosure of those documents attracted the government’s attention, and ours, too.
Our supposed masters in Washington have made their intentions clear enough. They do not consider the Constitution an obstacle to their plans. We have had a lot of people – Binney was among the first, Snowden among the most recent – who have warned us about what the government’s state security agencies are up to. We have paid varying degrees of attention to these warnings, but so far they have not had an appreciable effect. You sail along, and hope reality isn’t quite as dreadful as you fear.
At a certain point, state security agencies become so powerful, and so secret, you wonder if anything we do as citizens could possibly stop or reverse this slide. Historians of America’s fall may look at Snowden’s warnings and say, “That was their last chance.” They may say, “It was too late by then to do anything.” Or they might say, “Snowden’s leak was the catalyst that led people to take effective action.” Most likely, historians’ judgments will be as mixed as our are now.
All we know right now is that both William Binney and Edward Snowden have told the truth. Every government response to their accusations indicates they are true. One person might ask, “Why does Snowden get so much more attention?” Another might ask, “Why isn’t William Binney accused of being a traitor?” The most important question is, “What are we going to do about their warnings?” When someone reports a tornado, a tsunami, or a wildfire bearing down on your house, do you call a friend and tell her you’d like to have a debate about the tradeoff between haste and preservation of family heirlooms? Do you chat about the problem until you figure out a good balance?
What we can’t tell, because this is politics and not a natural disaster, is whether the tsunami has already hit or not, or if it’s on top of us right now. The actions you take before, during, and after a disaster are different. My judgment is that we are in the midst of the disaster: the tsunami has arrived and we are about to drown. We can’t stop the wave, we cannot stay dry, and our republic is disintegrating before our eyes. That’s not to say we are helpless. We are never helpless. The national security state may appear unstoppable, but every tsunami expends its power in time. We have to do what we can to survive, and to aid in our own recovery.
Meanwhile, praise Binney and Snowden, and everyone else who sounds the alarm. Danger has arrived. Sound the alarm. Look out for your neighbor and for yourselves.
Significantly, government has not explained why domestic surveillance programs must be secret in order to be effective. They simply say that disclosure warns our enemies these programs exist. Honestly, do you think a jihadist who means the United States harm cares about anything related to U. S. domestic surveillance? The warrior for God knows that the U. S. government will do everything it can to monitor all of his communications, no matter what. He, in turn, does his best to circumvent those efforts. The details of these programs don’t help him in these efforts, and therefore don’t interest him in the least.
Learning that the U. K. spies on its guests, though, that’s interesting. They set up an Internet cafe to capture outgoing email from delegates to a G-20 conference. What gracious hosts! Why spy on your enemies far away, when you have friends close by? It’s so much easier. Even at a fancy conference, though, delegates know their communications aren’t confidential. Everyone monitors everyone else, all the time. That’s what governments do. It may be a waste of time, but they can’t help themselves.
So why does NSA think we ought to listen when they claim they must keep their domestic snooping a secret, in order to catch terrorists? In fact, they don’t expect us to take them seriously. They simply don’t have anything else to say. They might claim that analyzing Verizon’s records to find patterns helps them stop attacks, but they have no argument for why the effort must be secret. When you have nothing to say, you fall back on the same formulas you have heard others repeat for decades.
A question related to secrecy is, exactly how did Edward Snowden’s leaks do grave damage to U. S. national security? FBI Director Robert Mueller said the leaks endanger Americans because “you have persons who want to undertake terrorist attacks who don’t have a full understanding of the Internet. And, to the extent that you expose programs like this, we are educating them.”
He didn’t just toss that off during an interview. He said it during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. It is virtually the only response any government leader has given to the question, how did Snowden’s leaks cause harm? Dianne Feinstein has said that Snowden committed treason, but she has not said why. The best answer anyone in government can give is that we are telling the terrorists how the Internet works.
Here’s the true answer: government will charge you with espionage anytime you reveal something it wants to keep secret. Espionage by a U. S. citizen, in government’s eyes, amounts to treason. You do not need to justify a charge of treason in a case like this – all you have to do is establish that the information was secret, and that it was revealed. That’s why government acts with such confidence to arrest Snowden. It has no doubt that it can prove its case.
Concepts, reasons, and forms of advocacy often enter public discussion in revealing ways. We’ve heard a lot about treason lately, especially since 9/11. We have this feeling in our gut that some group of people committed treason that day, but we don’t know who or how. The charge of treason was set free that day. It escaped the basement to float in our collective consciousness. Like a bat in search of insects, it has not come to rest.
The people inside government who actively undermine our Constitution would like to pin this charge on someone outside government. We’re engaged in a mighty, often unconscious struggle to make the charge stick, to settle this question of loyalty. Government officials wouldn’t put it this way. When they speak of Edward Snowden, they’re at pains to say he broke the law. Consequently, they say, we must punish him.
Of course he broke the law. That’s what civil disobedience is: a citizen breaks a law to show that it is wrong. Martin Luther King broke laws, too, and lost his life as a result. King’s actions illuminated right and wrong in the struggle for desegregation and equal rights. Snowden’s act of civil disobedience shows that the privacy rights protected in the Fourth Amendment are much more significant than the state’s desire to keep its surveillance activities secret. Without civil disobedience, laws seldom change.
To return to the question of treason and loyalty to the state: government officials show by their behavior that they want to make the charge of traitor settle somewhere, on some scapegoat outside of government, so they can go about their patriotic work. Don’t forget, the people who have betrayed us believe they are patriots. That is a key reason they use the word treason to label those who oppose them. You want to put the so-called traitor outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior. You make the scapegoat’s act of civil disobedience illegitimate. If the state can do that, it protects itself, and it deters future acts of disobedience. Believe me, though: if you support Edward Snowden, you are not a traitor.
A political crime is a crime against the state. That is, it is a crime where the state, not an individual, is the victim. Other countries recognize, prosecute, and punish a whole host of crimes against the state. If you publish an editorial that takes a country’s leader to task for some awful thing he has done, the state can call you before a judge to answer for sedition, or whatever the state wants to call your act of free speech. If you organize a demonstration to protest the state’s suppression of speech, you may never see a judge: only an interrogator who knows how to use standard compliance techniques to make you submit. You know what those techniques are. You’ve seen them used by our own government, in secret prisons.
Our Bill of Rights turns the idea of a political crime on its head. It lists the various things a state may not do. As such, it defines political crimes committed by the state against the people, not acts committed by the people against the state. We can point to several exceptions, but for the most part our political and legal systems since 1789 have not prosecuted crimes like sedition, espionage, and treason. As a rule, in our public discourse, we have made these acts secondary to the political crimes listed in the Bill of Rights. Not so long ago, if you were to ask an American which is worse – for a state to spy on a citizen, or a citizen to spy on the state – the individual would reply, which act is forbidden in the Bill of Rights?
Now our state regularly talks about treason and espionage as crimes committed by our own citizens. We see phrases like aid and abet, words used to describe actions of people who help traitors, spies, and other enemies of the state. We learn what it means when the president declaims, “If you are not with us, you are against us.” The us in that sentence is the state. It is not the nation as a whole, but the state within the nation, that the state must protect with every means available.
The American people have to decide whether they are with the state, or against it. If you do not agree with what the state wants to do, you become an enemy, to be treated the same way the state treats its enemies overseas. In fact, a traitor is worse than an overseas enemy, because a traitor had a chance to submit, and did not. A traitor enjoyed the state’s protection, and rejected it. A traitor who commits civil disobedience tries to reveal the state’s actions as illegitimate, but that is wrong in itself, say the state’s defenders, since everything the state does must be legal.
In our country, the state has revised the original, constitutional meaning of political crime. No act by the state ever violates the Bill of Rights now. The only acts recognized as political crimes now are acts by citizens against the state. We don’t have to worry about the Bill of Rights any longer. Welcome to the ranks of every villainous, criminal state that ever existed. We must introduce ourselves to the dishonor, degradation, and hopelessness of political authority without limits.
I do not want to end with such a pessimistic thought. Earlier I said we are never without hope, even in the midst of a tsunami. Should we lose our freedom, some future generation might regain it. The sad but urgent thing for us to remember is something Ronald Reagan recited so frequently: here in America, democracy has flourished for a long time. People who loved freedom dreamt about coming here, and many did. We were the best and often only refuge for freedom lovers everywhere.
If we don’t stop the state on its current path, we will become another nation of rulers and ruled – a nation of powerful people who can do what they like, and of powerless subjects who must submit. We can stop this process, but we cannot wait a moment longer to act. That is what Edward Snowden thought when he decided to fly from Hawaii to Hong Kong. We have to think the same way.