June 26, 2013 · 1 Comments
By Murray Polner:
No less an expert on national security than Dick Cheney immediately judged that Edward Snowden, the now world famous leaker of NSA secrets, was “a traitor,” and obviously no mere whistleblower. The former Vice-President even wondered on “Fox News Sunday” whether he might also be a spy working alongside China. “I’m deeply suspicious because he went to China,” Cheney told host Chris Wallace. “That’s not a place where you ordinarily want to go if you’re interested in freedom and liberty and so forth. It raises questions whether or not he had that kind of connection before he did this.”
Ah, Dick Cheney. Think of “Game Change,” that smart film about the McCain-Palin presidential campaign. After their defeat and scenes of Palin’s astonishing lack of knowledge, McCain’s inner circle tried to fathom what went wrong when Jamey Sheridan, the actor playing McCain’s speech writer Mark Salter, suddenly asks, “You know what Dick Cheney said when he picked her?"
“What” asks Woody Harrelson who plays the campaign’s boss?
“Said we made a reckless choice,” answered a poker-faced “Salter.”
Long Pause. Sheridan-Salter: “When you lose the moral high ground to Dick Cheney you have to rethink you entire life.”
Cheney’s instant verdict was followed by powerful congressional insiders Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein (“It’s an act of treason”), and House Speaker John Boehner (“He’s a traitor”). A growing number of politicians, journalists and Democrats eager to protect the president and their own financial and professional careers in the “Imperial City” -- Antiwar.com editor Justin Raimondi’s felicitous description of Washington, D.C. -- have joined in the assault or else largely kept their tongue. He broke the law, they argue, which he did. But some laws in American history -- the Fugitive Slave law, Plessy v. Ferguson, Jim Crow laws, even Prohibition and anti-Vietnam war protests, for example -- deserve to be broken. So if his was an act of civil disobedience as some have suggested why not surrender and take the punishment, say 10-20 years in a federal prison? Or, conversely, why not just shut up and join the in-crowd?
So is Snowden a law-breaker who damaged national security and fled or a very brave whistleblower-leaker who handed the American people a priceless gift?
Americans are often thought to admire whistleblowers, at least in films and TV, brave people who speak out on behalf of causes they hold dear. Erin Brockovich and the cigarette company chemist in “The Insider” were portrayed as favorably as possibly. Ron Ridenhour, no film character but rather the valiant Vietnam War helicopter door gunner who helped expose the murders of several hundred Vietnamese peasants at My Lai despite intimidation and threats. Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower Nixon wanted locked up on charges of treason, revealed a mountain of governmental falsehoods, which eventually led directly to 58,000 GIs killed, tens of thousands wounded in body and mind, and Lord knows how many civilians dead and wounded. It was WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning, both alleged whistleblowers, who released that classified video of U.S. troops firing at and killing two Reuters reporters and several Iraqi civilians, none of which ordinary Americans would have otherwise known since there has never been an investigation of the murders.
As is now widely known, more criminal indictments have been brought under the Espionage Act by the Obama administration than by all previous presidential administrations combined -- even the Bush II administration so reviled by liberals. Obama and his Justice Department’s main weapon has been Woodrow Wilson’s odious Espionage and Sedition Act of 1917. Wilson, a Southern Democrat and racist bigot, had just taken the U.S. into WWI and wanted to strike back at his antiwar, anti-draft, and left-wing critics such as IWW members and radicals like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Many dissenters were jailed and others exiled. Most famously, Eugene Victor Debs the Socialist labor leader, received a ten-year prison sentence before he was pardoned by a far more humane Warren Harding.
Given the waves of condemnation of Snowden's action, three cheers then for the Times’ editorial board and also its former executive editor Max Frankel who asked, coolly and judiciously, “Where Did Our ‘Inalienable Rights’ Go?” and questioned the judgments of his erstwhile colleagues, Thomas Friedman, Bill Keller and David Brooks and their swift and negative judgments of Snowden.
“I envy the commentators," wrote Frankel, “who, after a few days of vague discussion, think they have heard enough to strike the balance between liberty and security," adding “Whatever the motive for the leaks by Edward J. Snowden, they have stimulated a long-overdue public airing.”
Nor have the Times’ editorials given ground to the prevailing frenzy. In “Surveillance: Snowden Doesn’t Rise to Traitor” it denounces the “hyperbole” of the government’s charges. “Whatever his [Snowden’s] crimes -- and he clearly committed some -- his actions were by no means “treason,” rightly citing the 1945 ruling in Cramer v. U.S. when the Supreme Court ruled that it was not treason if in the Times’ words one didn’t “provide aid and comfort or ‘adhere’ to an enemy.” Successive Times editorials kept at it with “Details on spying, no more assurances” and “Prying Private Eyes: Congress has to end excessive reliance on government contractors.”
And then there’s the always up-front Maureen Dowd and her “Peeping Barry” column reminding us that Cheney and Bush “crumpled the Constitution, manipulated intelligence to go to war against a country that hadn’t attacked us, and implemented warrantless eavesdropping -- all in the name of keeping us safe from terrorists” and expressed her concern about all that information now available to millions of men and women in the “intelligence community.” Then she let the current administration have it:
“Back in 2007, Obama said he would not want to run an administration that was ‘Bush -Cheney lite.’ He doesn’t have to worry. With prisoners denied due process at Gitmo starving themselves, with the CIA not always aware who it’s killing with drones, with an overzealous approach to leaks, and with the government’ secret domestic spy business swelling, there’s nothing lite about it.”
The more secrecy, the more unaccountable, unchecked power granted rulers?
These concerns apparently matter little to Thomas Friedman and Bill Keller. While not overly enthusiastic about spying on Americans, Friedman’s disparagement of what Snowden did was rather bizarre. He decided, “reluctantly, very reluctantly,” that some freedoms today must be sacrificed because a future terrorist attack would drastically reduce our freedoms, a notion seconded by Keller. Friedman then inexplicably and approvingly quotes TV writer David Simon of “the Wire,” who calls The Guardian and presumably Glenn Greenwald “wailing jeremiads about this pretend-discovery of U.S. big data collection,” concluding, “We don’t know of any actual abuse,” though how he and Friedman know is a mystery since it’s all top secret.
And then there was David Brooks, who occasionally seems to reflect Edmund Burke’s esteem for “a manly, moral, regulated liberty,” and who detected in Snowden (and one imagines Bradley Manning as well) the odor of anarchy. Over and again Brooks uses the word “betrayed” as he finds Snowden guilty of betraying almost every institution he could think of. “For society to function well,” he wrote, “there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret NSA documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.”
I have no idea if the Times’ Big Three ever read the tabloid Daily News but Richard Clarke, the onetime terrorism advisor to both Bushes and Clinton, published his nonconformist take in that paper: “The argument that this sweeping search must be kept secret from the terrorists is laughable. Terrorists already assume this sort of thing is being done. Only law-abiding American citizens were blissfully ignorant of what their government was doing.” And, “we should worry about this program because governmental agencies, particularly the FBI, have a well-established record of overreacting, exceeding their authority and abusing the law.”
Even the NY Observer, hardly leftwing, concerned mainly with the city’s elite, whose circulation is minuscule compared to the Times, Daily News and even Murdoch’s money-losing sensationalist Post, added a salient lesson to the raging debate, namely that Snowden “should be a simple footnote in the larger narrative of government overreach in the name of national security,” adding, “It’s time the nation had a genuine debate over the liberties we have sacrificed in the name of national security.” And James Bamford, who has written extensively about the NSA and knows more about it than almost anybody, reminded Charley Rose that Daniel Ellsberg was once called a traitor too.
Whatever happens, a worrying question will be the impact it could have on national security reporters who have been and may well be one day again be threatened with subpoenas and serious penalties for disclosing materials gleaned from whistleblowers and then refuse to disclose their sources. Will it have a “chilling effect”? Why not, considering the Justice Department’s recent secret subpoena of Associated Press editors and reporters phone records, which the AP denounced as a “massive and unprecedented intrusion.”
Molly Redden’s perceptive piece in the May 15th New Republic wondered if the “chilling effect” was real. It is, said Times reporter Eric Lichtblau, who changed his beat from national security to politics. After he and fellow reporter James Risen wrote about Bush’s warrantless wiretaps he emailed Redden: “I heard from various news sources that the FBI had been monitoring my phone and Internet communications with certain people as part of its leak investigation into our NSA story.” Redden then added, “Nearly every national security reporter reached Tuesday had a similar story to tell, as do plenty of their peers” and concluded, “The DOJ’s seizure of AP records will probably only exacerbate these problems.” So then, as the National Catholic Reporter asked, “Who will guard the guards?”
Then there’s Glenn Greenwald, the intrepid lawyer-journalist formerly with Salon and now with the British Guardian. When George Stephanopoulos asked him on TV if he had been visited by the FBI and what would he say if they did, Greenwald told him: “There’s this thing called the Constitution [and] the First Amendment.”
Murray Polner wrote, with Jim O’Grady, “Disarmed and Dangerous,” a dual biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan. Murray writes his "Keeping Score" column for NYT eXaminer.