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Edward Snowden: Courageous Whistleblower or Useful Idiot?

(Reuters)

Sadly, Snowden suffered from a syndrome that is too typical among activists in the West: in their zeal for criticism of their own country or civilization, they end up favoring other countries or civilizations that are far worse.”

One of the many contradictions in the Bible is in II Samuel 24:1, which narrates when God ordered David to carry on a census. A few centuries later, another Biblical author, narrated that Satan was the one who ordered David to do such a thing (I Chronicles, 21:1). Apart from demonstrating the Bible’s less-than-divine origins, this contradiction also puts in evidence that—no matter the epoch—people do not like governments to know too much about their private lives. The author of I Chronicles was upset about the census because it would be used for taxation purposes. But the main point is that—whether it is about knowing where you live (as in ancient times) or about your Wi-Fi network (as in modern times)—people frequently look with suspicion at the prospect of the State knowing details about their personal lives.

To be operational, governments do need to collect a minimum of information from citizens, whether the citizens like it or not. But, where should we draw the line? This is a pressing issue in our times. Edward Snowden has made a name arguing that the U.S. government crossed that line a long time ago. He is mostly right. In the name of providing security, the State has violated the fundamental principles of democracy. Democracy is built upon the basic principle of guaranteeing basic liberties that ensure the State has limits when it comes to the private realm. Privacy is one of those liberties. The democratic system of checks and balances is precisely about limiting the size of government. A government that listens to private conversations of the ordinary, law-abiding citizen, has become too large—and is even en route to totalitarianism.

Snowden fails to understand that accepting protection from Russia is self-defeating in his original intentions. For, ultimately, he has become the useful idiot of a regime that uses him precisely to advance the kind of totalitarian tactics that he was concerned about in the first place.

As Snowden recounts in his recently-published memoir Permanent Record, as a CIA contractor Snowden was shocked to learn about the outrageous breach of privacy rights  the National Security Agency was inflicting upon American citizens. He, thus, decided to become a whistleblower by leaking classified information about the illegal tactics that the U.S. government was engaging in.

Are whistleblowers heroes or traitors? Nationalists like to proclaim the idiotic phrase, “my country, right or wrong.” This is nice in a soccer match but not in the realm of morality. A sound moral sense would advise that there is a higher ethical standard than loyalty to a nation’s government. So, if one’s own country violates basic moral principles, it is one’s duty to let the world know about it. Actually, asking whether whistleblowers are heroes or traitors is a false binary; in fact, by letting the public know about the abuses of a country’s own government, one becomes a patriot, inasmuch as it is an effort to rescue the country from tyranny.

One striking thing about the whole Snowden affair is that he put his finger on an uncomfortable truth for liberals: President Obama was even more aggressive than President Bush in mass surveillance. As I have argued, Obama was given a huge free pass from liberals on the basis of identity politics (being the first black President was more important than anything else). He was marketed as the cool-looking President who would never do the abhorrent things that WASPs like Bush or Reagan frequently do. Honestly speaking, in many aspects, he was worse, and breaching privacy was one of those areas. Naturally, Obama was not impressed with Snowden and has claimed that he is not a patriot. In order to save face, Obama acknowledged the NSA’s abuses, but he insisted that Snowden bypassed the adequate mechanisms to reveal the information and, thus, should stand trial.

Obama’s argument is outrageous. Snowden was criticizing the totalitarian turn that the U.S. was taking, and the country’s own president pretended that an informant would willingly process that information through a justice system that had put into effect laws such as the Patriot Act (which, again, Obama carried on only too eagerly)? Baloney.

It is unquestionably true that Snowden broke the law; he had taken an oath never to disclose classified information. Furthermore, he is now facing additional legal action because, in his memoir, he reveals even more secrets. But, in my view, these legal obligations are binding only when the State has previously kept its part of the deal. As Snowden’s revelations clearly show, the State was the first one to disregard the rule of law. Snowden’s violation of minor laws is an admirable effort to reinstitute the grander rule of law.

Yet, I am not absolutely convinced that Snowden is a hero. Unfortunately, he has become what in the old Soviet days they called a “useful idiot from the West.” In his memoir, Snowden goes to great lengths to try to maintain his autonomy from Putin’s autocracy. He is not convincing at all. He claims that he only stayed in Russia because his real goal was to reach Ecuador from Hong Kong, and Russia being a country with no extradition agreement with the U.S., was a logical stop. His passport was then cancelled, and he was stuck in Moscow. That may very well be the case, but why would Snowden want to reach Ecuador in the first place? Presumably, because that country had given Julian Assange asylum in a related case.  

But a closer look at Ecuador will reveal that, under Rafael Correa (the President of Ecuador at the time), the country was also on the undemocratic path. Under the sponsorship of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez (another not-so-democratic Latin American strongman), Correa infringed upon the civil liberties of many Ecuadorians. Snowden himself considered seeking asylum in Venezuela, a country whose government has notoriously breached the privacy of private conversations without judicial warrants, even broadcasting them on State TV. 

Sadly, Snowden suffered from a syndrome that is too typical among activists in the West: in their zeal for criticism of their own country or civilization, they end up favoring other countries or civilizations that are far worse. Snowden fails to understand that accepting protection from Russia is self-defeating in his original intentions. For, ultimately, he has become the useful idiot of a regime that uses him precisely to advance the kind of totalitarian tactics that he was concerned about in the first place. Sure, one may criticize Martin Luther King Jr. for plagiarizing his thesis, but would you want support from the Ku Klux Klan in order to advance this criticism? Students in logic courses are taught that “guilty by association” is a fallacy. Yet, in a political context, this may not be necessarily the case. Actions have consequences, and the ruthless criticism of a political actor may naively favor an even worse political actor. In politics, lesser evils must be chosen, and Snowden was not careful enough in making his decision. Nevertheless, he deserves praise for opening a conversation that, predictably, will prove to be crucial in our times ahead.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at Ajman University, United Arab Emirates. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. 

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Jason Hall
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Jason Hall

Snowden was trying to reach Latin America because only four countries in the entire world offered him asylum. Specifically: Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Venezuela. Snowden applied to practically every country in the free world for asylum, and they all said no. This is likely no coincidence- the President of the United States is the leader of the free world. Russia eventually offered him asylum because he couldn’t fly anywhere, and was stuck at the airport for 40 days. The physical presence in Russia of a 36 year old digital privacy advocate absolutely does NOT magically cause the Russian Government to… Read more »