The question isn’t why Snowden blew the whistle, but why so many others didn’t

A Bloomberg headline says it all: “NSA Leaker Recalled as Shy Computer-Bound Maryland Teenager”

“He was always very quiet, and he was always on his computer,” Joyce Kinsey, a neighbor, told reporters Julie Bykowicz and Greg Giroux. Obviously, if Edward Snowden had devoted more time to football or baseball he wouldn’t now be on the run.

And then we come to the question that for two journalists whose beat is money in politics, seems like their deepest concern:

As U.S. investigators begin a probe into how Snowden copied highly classified materials and disseminated them to two news outlets, another looming question for members of Congress and the White House is why he decided to become disloyal to the government that sustained his family.

Snowden bit the hand that feeds his family — the unintended implication being that loyalty to the U.S. government is generally reliably sustained by cash. You get paid, you keep your mouth shut.

As for political insight into Snowden’s motives for becoming a whistleblower, supposedly the only clue comes from his two $250 donations to the Ron Paul presidential campaign in 2012 — no doubt federal employees who happen to be Paul supporters will now be more paranoid than ever, with good reason.

The narrative thrust in this profile is one which we will see again and again: Edward Snowden did what he did because of who he is — not because of what he saw.

But the questions that should concern Americans and journalists who have an interest about the way their government operates and the nature of the society they live in, should not be about the personal details of Snowden’s life.

What he has revealed, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of other Americans already knew about and were willing to keep concealed from their fellow citizens. No doubt some had unshakable conviction that such surveillance is essential and for these true believers, maintaining secrecy amounted to doing the right thing. But Snowden could not have been alone in being troubled by the extent to which surveillance had become expanded without any public awareness or consent.

Ask not why Snowden blew the whistle but why so many others didn’t. And beyond that, ask why it is that during a decade which has seen illegal war, illegal killing, torture, kidnapping, and mass surveillance, not a single senior government official has tendered their resignation and said that as a matter of conscience they had to speak out.

We live in a society where it appears that for anyone to advance into a position of great responsibility, the individual’s conscience must become tethered in the process.

By the time Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 he was 40 years old, had served as a U.S. marine in Vietnam, held senior positions at the Pentagon and Rand Corporation, acquired significant influence and yet his integrity remained intact.

For those who ask why today’s whistleblowers are so young, the answer seems to be that the halls of power now stifle dissent so effectively that responsibility is only invested in the hands of those who long forgot how to do the right thing.

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6 thoughts on “The question isn’t why Snowden blew the whistle, but why so many others didn’t

  1. delia ruhe

    I think that conclusion is probably right, Paul. I try to imagine myself pulling down US$200,000 and giving it up to become a whistleblower in a climate where persecutors of whistleblowers are given free reign. Well, I won’t go there …

    Only a youthful person whose conscience has not yet been too corrupted, and whose mind has not yet been poisoned by cynicism could do it.

    For some mysterious reason, Ellsberg never suffered these debilitating and all too common diseases of the “mature,” but I suspect he never allowed himself to fall asleep at night without quietly rehearsing the fundamentals of his identity as a human being and an American citizen. We ordinary mortals cannot but be humbled by that.

  2. BillVZ

    The narrative thrust in this profile is one which we will see again and again: Edward Snowden did what he did because of who he is — not because of what he saw.

    A fine example to illustrate that was your posting of the Slate take down written by Farad Manjoo their tech writer.
    “But the more I learned about him this afternoon, the angrier I became The scandal isn’t just that the government is spying on us –it is also that it’s giving guys like Snowden keys to the spying program. “Who’s actually doing the work of analyzing all the data……” The NSA trusted its most sensitive documents to this guy who is merely an IT guy, and not a very accomplished, experienced one at that.”

  3. Paul Woodward

    I think Manjoo’s argument can be read in a couple of ways. Certainly it can sound like a put down, but I think the larger point is that he’s calling into question the NSA’s competence by its own standards. The appeals to trust that are always made in the name of national security always rest on the premise that those who are being trusted with secrecy, earn that trust because of their competence. If they can’t run their own shop, they don’t deserve to be trusted.

    At the same time, the idea of an intelligence agency that operates with such rigorous efficiency that there are never any breaches in security, is actually the scariest scenario since it would have to be filled with robotic loyalists who were all incapable of an act of conscience.

  4. sigh westberry

    Because as even Snowden himself said….after all is said and done nothing will change. If we lived in a world where people “REALLY” actually cared about people.
    Not that pretend smile we so publicly like to display as we walk pass the homeless person and under our breath mutter”get a job you lazy bum!”
    People don’t care because that’s what we have observed and have been taught from birth. Capitalism is not a good teacher of morals.
    So, good paying nice easy job, big house, sweet girl friend, all in “paradise” Hawaii not far from the blue sea. Who in their right capitalist mind would throw that away for a chance to enlighten the dumbed down masses and then get hounded chased imprisioned tortured for the rest of your life.

  5. BillVZ

    The NSA trusted its most sensitive documents to” this guy.”

    “He’s the IT guy, and not a very accomplished, experienced one at that. If Snowden had sent his résumé to any of the tech companies that are providing data to the NSA’s PRISM program, I doubt he’d have even gotten an interview.” “Hmmm….obviously, besides all the things Manjoo lists Snowden is not, he is also not ‘someone’s friend of a friend’, cousin or other non qualification. Yet, he had his present position and from what is known similar oneslike it.
    “This guy”, despite Manjoo’s snarky evaluation and judgment of Snowden and his IT qualifications- was seen with countless others as they watched his interview,as a very sincere, honest trust worthy person whose qualities and presence goes beyond IT qualifications and experience. “Those who are being trusted with secrecy, earn that trust because of their competence.”
    He was accorded the NSA’s top security clearance, which allowed him to see and to download the agency’s most sensitive documents. He didn’t just know about the NSA’s surveillance systems—he says he had the ability to use them. Did he misuse them? It seems not!
    Any critique of a person and the job qualifications that begins with “this guy” is much more than ‘it sounds like’ a put down.’

  6. snowfall

    The N S A “outsourced” mass surveillance to Israeli companies Narus & Verint, who started splitting US phone cables like a “prism” back around 2002.

    Mark Klein launched dozens of consumer lawsuits over this in early 2006.

    Because they haven’t merely been collecting call record metadata…but actually vacuumed & stored ALL communications with full, direct access.

    Obviously, Obama and his spooks are bald-faced lying to the American public about this.

    Hence, Shia LaBeouf told Jay Leno in 2008 that an FBI consultant played a personal call of his back to him from 2 years ago…


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