Snowden supporters can’t handle complexity

If Glenn Greenwald had more interest in investigation and less interest in being a celebrity, he could find no better tutor than Steven Aftergood — someone who most of Greenwald’s followers have most likely never heard of. Even so, Greenwald certainly understand what plays well with a large audience: a simple story.

Aftergood writes: For some of Edward Snowden’s partisans and supporters…, the possibility that his leaks had negative as well as positive consequences involves more complexity than they can tolerate. If Snowden intended to defend constitutional values, as he insists, then how dare anyone suggest that he may have also aided America’s enemies, even indirectly?

This sort of complexity does not arise in Laura Poitras’s award-winning film Citizenfour about Snowden, as its few critical reviewers have noted.

Many of the documents Snowden disclosed “go far beyond exposures of spying on Americans,” wrote Fred Kaplan in a review of the film in Slate. “If Snowden and company wanted to take down an intelligence agency, they should say so. But that has nothing to do with whistleblowing or constitutional rights.”

Likewise, wrote George Packer in The New Yorker, “Among the leaked documents are details of foreign-intelligence gathering that do not fall under the heading of unlawful threats to American democracy–what Snowden described as his only concern. [Former NSA official William] Binney, generally a fervent Snowden supporter, told USA Today that Snowden’s references to ‘hacking into China’ went too far: ‘So he is transitioning from whistle-blower to a traitor’.”

And from Michael Cohen in The Daily Beast: “What is left out of Poitras’s highly sympathetic portrayal of Snowden is so much of what we still don’t know about him. For example, why did he steal so many documents that have nothing to do with domestic surveillance but rather overseas–and legal–intelligence-gathering operations?”

But for a discussion of Citizenfour that presents no such dissonant, skeptical notes or troublesome opposing views, see the late David Carr’s final interview with Snowden, Poitras and Glenn Greenwald.

For me, one of the most memorable moments in that interview came when the participants scoffed at the United State’s poor ranking in the latest Borders Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.

At 46, the U.S. falls below countries such as Botswana — proximity which for Greenwald appeared to insult America’s reputation much more than it complimented Botswana.

While enjoying the freedom to speak from a stage in New York City (Greenwald’s fear of getting arrested in the U.S. seemed to disappear as soon as he got a Pulitzer and published his book), no mention was made of the fact that the country where Snowden resides ranks 148, while Greenwald’s home country of Brazil ranks 111.

No doubt, for as long as the U.S. retains the conceit of being “the leader of the free world,” it has little excuse for failing to rank number one in press freedom. At the same time, those who choose to characterize the U.S. government as the preeminent threat to personal freedom in the world, are either willfully ignoring or simply ignorant of much more egregious threats to freedom that can be seen in China, the Middle East, Russia and elsewhere.


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10 thoughts on “Snowden supporters can’t handle complexity

  1. pabelmont

    Of course, I don’t know why Snowden gathered so widely. Perhaps he did so because it was easy to do so and easier (during collection) to gather a lot and leave sorting til later. He may have feared detection during a more prolonged period of gathering.

    The USA more or less claims the same thing. NSA gathers everything — and doesn’t limit its gathering to things it has reason to believe may be evidence of crime (terrorism being, for this purpose, a crime).

    But if bad stuff “got out” may that not have been the choice of others, at Guardian and elsewhere?

    Or, of course, Snowden may have believed that spying on Americans was merely against the law (naughty NSA!) whereas spying on the entire world was so scary *(for other reasons) that it was worse than a crime — it was a catastrophe — that called even more for whistleblowing.

    Of course, I don’t know. Perhaps Snowden, Greenwald, and others will say.

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    In what was ostensibly the application of lessons learned from Wikileaks, Snowden always said that the press had to take responsibility for what they did or did not publish, but to my mind, this really undermines the premise behind whistleblowing: that someone who has access to secret information, has decided to make that information public because this serves the public interest.

    If the whistleblower is not assuming this responsibility himself, then he becomes a blind messenger, and this begs questions about his motives because he is not saying: this information must be made public. He’s saying: this information might need to be made public.

    It then ends up looking like he’s leaking information based on his ability to access it, rather than his belief that it needs to be made public.

  3. DonBishopSam

    I really find your comments and news analysis, for the most part, really interesting Mr Woodward.

    One thing though, I find it a little bit weird how you seem to be really aiming for Mr Greenwald so often? I don’t think that Greenwald personally or his enterprise with The Intercept is perfect, far from it, but at least I think that when you read an Intercept’s piece, you know (for the most part) why the story is reported as it is.

    But you seem, Mr Woodward, to focus a lot (if not only) on Mr Greenwald, and I can’t understand why or what earned Mr Greenwald such a generous allocation of your time, dedicated only to criticizing his work? I mean, there are so many examples of lazy journalism out there on a regular basis, from eminent newspapers (such as NYT, WaPost, etc…), why do we get only remarks on Mr Greenwald?

    Again, I find your work great, I am a regular reader since many years and I hope you will continue to share your daily reads.

    Sorry for my English, I am French!

  4. robert

    In general, when bloggers start sniping at each other in what sounds more like snits of professional envy than over substantive concerns, I go elsewhere. In this case I have some remarks.

    First, i.m.o. Mr. Greenwald has done the world vastly more good than harm both for his critique of the USA [and other countries] vis-a-vis human rights,militarism, democracy, secrecy, hypocrisy in general, and in the Snowden matter. So possible oversteps in the Snowden matter are of secondary consequence. His personality characteristics, flaws or otherwise, are distinctly tertiary.

    Second, I find many American writers across the political spectrum to be oddly blinkered about what the U.S. government does in the rest of the world overtly or otherwise as later revealed. The idea that the focus of the whole Snowden matter is on the privacy concerns of U.S. citizens and the rest is out-of-bounds is ludicrous to me. Rather like saying that destabilizing, overthrowing popular governments, and invading and occupying other countries is ok since it doesn’t happen in US territory or directly affect its citizenry and has purportedly laudable aims if you happen to be American. That is in large part the problem. So the more light shone on espionage, dirty tricks, interferences of whatever nature with no particular concern for the primacy of U.S. interests as understood by Americans, the better. Many of us, rather than commenting on the colour of the bathwater, would like to see the bathtub overturned.

  5. Paul Woodward Post author

    On this much we agree: I don’t regard U.S. interests as superior to those of everyone else and I regard the privacy concerns of U.S. citizens as having garnered a disproportionate amount of attention in relation to the full scope of the NSA’s activities.

    That privacy became so much a focus is a reflection of Greenwald’s approach to this story and the strange narrative he constructed on why privacy matters. By his telling, privacy is the well-spring of creativity — the only thing that allows us to discover who we really are. If we do not cherish our privacy, it supposedly means our lives are so shallow and inconsequential, we have nothing worth hiding.

    But privacy is actually a completely different animal and is one of several mechanisms through which we construct social space. The significance of an intrusion on privacy is not determined by the content of a private space, it derives purely from the transgression of the boundary, which is to say, a boundary that was thought to have some substance turns out to have none.

    It’s obvious why much of the world experiences America as an overbearing, meddling force, yet among many of its critics both outside and inside the U.S., the focus on American power is so obsessive, it overshadows everything else. This creates a distorted picture of the many forces that shape the world and reinforces a generalized sense of impotence in relationship to a falsely conceived monolithic power. America figures too large in the eyes of both those who love it and those who hate it.

  6. Paul Woodward Post author

    Sam – Your English is fine — vastly superior to my French.

    Why do I single out Greenwald? In his prominent position, he epitomizes a culture of political protest that rather than advocating for a better world appears to dream of one remarkably similar to the one in which we live.

    Snowden set a very low bar when he said that his worst fear was that his revelations would go ignored. By that measure, the ruckus that he and Greenwald kicked up must be seen as a great success. Yet there have been few if any significant reforms in the ways the NSA operates. Meanwhile, the national security state continues to expand. Indeed, one could argue that the level of transparency that has been imposed on Washington against its will, has actually made the expansion of the intelligence apparatus easier than it might otherwise have been. The intelligence community is now able to repeatedly claim that it is at risk of being dangerously constrained and a risk-averse Congress is always inclined to defer to those fears. The I-C is milking its victim status for all its worth.

    But let’s suppose that contrary to the current trends, Snowden and Greenwald are ultimately successful and the programs of mass surveillance and other excesses of the post-9/11 security expansion are ultimately reversed. Personally, I think that would be a rather meager accomplishment.

    The ways in which Google and Facebook are exploiting the data they harvest is, I believe, having a much more profound effect on the world than the NSA. Google doesn’t just store your email but subjects it to continuous analysis and relentlessly strives to extract its commercial value. The technology companies have a much deeper interest in your life in all its trivial details than the NSA could ever have the interest or capabilities to discover. Without oversight or public scrutiny or even much public concern, the technology companies are engaged in the most extensive endeavor of social engineering ever undertaken, and yet this story has been overshadowed by the supposedly much more dangerous NSA, thanks in large part to the efforts of one Pulitzer Prize winning journalist.

    Because social media in the basic mechanisms of their operation are not controlled by government but are instead shaped by commerce, we have acquired a kind of blasé attitude about their effects — even when witnessing, for instance, the way they have been harnessed by ISIS.

    In the realm of cyberwarfare, the U.S. might tower over other powers — but I wouldn’t be sure about that. I think that there are plenty of reasons why we should perhaps be more concerned about what Russia or China are doing — activities that we can reasonably assume will not be revealed by any whistleblower.

    Both inside and outside the U.S., it’s extremely easy to mobilize fear of American government and its role in the world. Americans have been afraid of government for as long as this country has existed.

    I think there is something inherently cynical about polemicists who pander to these fears, because they seem unwilling to challenge their own audience. I view Greenwald in that way — as someone who faithfully plays to his own crowd. The result is the camaraderie of the disaffected in which everyone prefers to talk about what’s wrong without taking the risk of being constructive or creative.

    Posit the Big Bad U.S. government as the greatest enemy and then it goes without saying that the most one can do is grumble or engage in theatrical acts of defiance.

    If I was a conspiracy theorist I might even suggest that if the government wanted to construct a social mechanism that allowed citizens to harmlessly blow off steam, it could do no better than create something like The Intercept.

  7. DonBishopSam

    I must say I strongly agree with your part on Google & co.

    What shocked me regarding the NSA revelations is not so much NSA’s abuses (it is outrageous, but expected at some point), but how private companies are creeping onto our lives (we let them, by laziness and love of comfort they purportedly offer us).

    When I speak about those NSA stories that get published very day with my friends back in France, I am quite often disappointed because I never hear anybody complaining about how our private lives & private infos are being exploited, literally, by Google, Facebook, Apple & co.

    I think that what initially you said in this piece (“Snowden supporters can’t handle complexity”) really applies to the Tech industries/sector. We eulogized those corporations so much, and we blindly granted them so much powers to collect everything, everywhere, and however they want, that now they really are too big to regulate.

    I think that is the main danger coming out from those leaks. And sadly, for the moment I don’t see enough people focusing on that essential part of the privacy issue. We love too much gadgets and what they facilitate for us in our everyday lives to see that it is our own self centered activities and tech-habits that allowed Google & co to garner so much power, and by extent allowed the NSA & governments intel agencies to collect all of this.

    The public focus only on this last part, the government malicious activity, because yes I agree with you, it is easy to sell malicious activity from any government than from our beloved tech icons that can’t be evil.

    That being said, I must thank you for your answer, I initially thought my comment would not pass the moderation step, even less receive an answer! That is, Mr Woodward, a pleasant surprise!

  8. Paul Woodward Post author

    “that allowed Google & co to garner so much power, and by extent allowed the NSA & governments intel agencies to collect all of this” — that is the key point: the NSA is a flea on the back of the tech companies.

    Those companies developed the intelligence-gathering infrastructure (popularly known as the internet), we populated that infrastructure with all imaginable kinds of information and then — holy moly! — the NSA had the audacity to look at the information we’d given away.

    We shouldn’t be shocked that the intelligence agencies do this. We should be shocked if they didn’t.

  9. DonBishopSam

    I was wondering, Mr Woodward, warincontext is handled by a team or is it the result of your work alone?

    Thanks to you I found many interesting sources of infos that I think I’d never have discovered if I did not find your blog many years ago!

  10. Paul Woodward Post author

    my work with the help of Twitter, Google, Feedly, other aggregators — and dogged persistence. You could say I’m a slave of my own interests. If I wasn’t spending many hours everyday working on War in Context, I’d want to be able to spent a fraction of that time by visiting another website where I could conveniently find all the same information. As far as I’m aware, that other site doesn’t exist.

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