Imagine the modern responses to some historic revelations about the nature of reality:
Nicolaus Copernicus: Polish guy without even a BA says earth revolves around the sun.
Isaac Newton: Government bureaucrat and alchemy crank offers three "laws" about action and reaction.
Charles Darwin: Over-privileged Brit hypochondriac says we're descended from monkeys.
Albert Einstein: Unknown Jewish patent clerk who needs a haircut says everything is "relative."
Niels Bohr: Mumbling Danish egghead says subatomic world has "quantum weirdness."
Anyone responding like that to news from scientific titans would clearly be, at the very least, half a bubble off plumb. Yet this is precisely the way our modern political discourse operates whenever someone is so rash as to report with some accuracy on the present political state of affairs.
It's nothing new; the Romans, who inherited a long tradition of rhetoric from the Greeks, called it the argumentum ad hominem, the argument against the man rather than what he says.
In North America, the triumph of the ad hominem argument was complete during the two administrations of George W. Bush -- which would have been only one if not for the ad hominem "swiftboating" of Democratic candidate John Kerry.
Ad hominem has effectively reduced any issue to a tribal dispute between good guys and bad guys. Whatever good guys do is by definition good. Whatever bad guys do is evil; even if they help old ladies across the street, it's only to advance their nefarious plans.
Traitor or hero?
The whistleblowing by Edward Snowden has immediately been framed as just another tribal quarrel: Is he a bad guy, or a good guy? Buzzfeed went to the trouble of exhuming hundreds of his posts to various online forums, if only to establish his cred as a serious geek. Some fret about his abandoned girlfriend.
Snowden himself seems to be the only non-tribal person involved in the matter. In a recent interview with the South China Morning Post, Snowden said: "I'm neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American.... I believe in freedom of expression. I acted in good faith but it is only right that the public form its own opinion."
But let's try to pull away from the good guy/bad guy frame and consider what Snowden is actually telling us, and what the implications might be.
Don Scargill, now running an open-source intelligence firm in Brussels after over 20 years in British military intelligence, told The Tyee in an email: "The fact that this activity was happening should be a surprise to no one. Only a complete moron would have assumed otherwise."
This makes sense. While the U.S. National Security Agency is famously secretive, it's been clear for decades that it is very good at monitoring electronic communications around the world. James Bamford, in his 1982 book The Puzzle Palace and its 2001 sequel Body of Secrets, documented the NSA's often hard times: in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was severely cut back. Bamford's latest comments indicate that the good times rolled after 9-11, when a serious new threat needed to be monitored.
Given the explosive improvement of computer communications, it's no surprise that intelligence agencies have the capacity to monitor even the flow of online communications in The United States (and Canada, and many other countries). Bush-era laws legalized warrant-less interception of messages, and the Obama administrations have sustained them.
The real surprises in Snowden's revelations
The surprise is not that it can be done; the surprise is in who's doing it, how they're doing it, and what that means about our governments.
First of all, a president who's also a onetime professor of U.S. constitutional law ought to know better. So should his attorney general. The Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect against "unreasonable searches and seizures"; monitoring everyone's email, Facebook posts, and Skype is a pretty unreasonable search.
Second, Snowden's departure from his Booz Allen Hamilton job in Hawaii suggests that both NSA and the corporations it outsources to are managed on lines that might charitably be called Dilbertian. If the work is so technical that it requires rare skills, and so secret that it requires rare loyalty and discretion, a candidate like Edward Snowden should never have been hired.
This is not to criticize Snowden, who evidently picked up great computer skills on his own. But his hiring process should have included some very personal interviewing that would have identified his reservations about doing what he would be called upon to do. As Scargill told The Tyee, "Where the system went wrong is in allowing a person to be vetted who clearly did not have enough belief in the current democratic system to have access to classified information."
When you think about it, very effective screening must be going on. An agency with such a budget and such recruiting needs would be in contact with countless civilian organizations, from computer-training programs in colleges to the boards of major corporations. Those civilians would have some sense of what NSA is doing, yet none of them have ever gone public with their concerns. And no one within the NSA/corporate system ever went public before Snowden.
NSA's sheer success, in other words, may have led to a certain complacency, enabling Snowden to enter and work within the system. And if a Snowden could get in, almost by accident, could there also be agents deliberately inserted through an inadequate screening process?
Whether or not you support NSA's worldwide web of surveillance, it can't be a welcome thought that all that taxpayer-funded classified information may be leaking from more than one rat-hole.
Senior NSA personnel must be keenly aware of that, and also aware of the dangerous example of James Jesus Angleton, the CIA man who practically paralyzed his own agency in a demented search for a nonexistent Soviet mole. Shaking up NSA in a search for more Snowdens could be equally counterproductive.
So we have a gigantic secret bureaucracy, capable (we're told) of monitoring the "metadata" of every phone call, Skype, and email produced or received by Americans. This is said to be legal because the U.S. government made it so during the darkest days after 9-11. That is bad enough. Quite apart from the disregard shown to the people NSA is supposed to be protecting, it must have had other effects on North America and the world.
Should NSA shape our world?
Its need for enormous resources has evidently helped to drive the computer industry -- just as a DARPA project in the 1960s drove the industry to create the foundations of the Internet. Perhaps NSA's hardware and software will eventually become just as useful; if so, it would nice of them to let us know.
NSA's need for technically skilled personnel has also shaped the evolution of the industry. When Diefenbaker cancelled the Avro Arrow, hundreds of aeronautical engineers migrated south to work for NASA. Those migrants put men on the moon; Canadian industry never really recovered. If the NSA weren't hiring them, talented people like Edward Snowden might be finding more economically useful work than tracking philanderers' emailed love letters.
Snowden recently said that NSA has been hacking networks in Hong Kong and mainland China. If so, the agency knows as much as the Chinese do about emerging disease threats like H7N9. Unless they are somehow passing this news along to health agencies, people are dying who might have lived.
Similarly, the NSA could also have knowledge of serious crimes committed in the U.S. and overseas. We can only hope, but can't be sure, that the agency passes such information on to the proper authorities; if it does not, it become complicit in those crimes.
These are all issues that deserve scrutiny and debate, and perhaps such debate would lead to renewed public commitment to what the NSA (and our own Communications Security Establishment Canada) have been doing, with the existing checks and balances: "The freedom of speech that has allowed criticism to be levelled at the NSA and the GCHQ is one such check," Scargill told The Tyee. "The balance is that this work must be done in secret to be effective, and why oversight is done by our democratically elected representatives."
But if we insist on overdramatizing the story by casting Edward Snowden as a hero or a villain, and focusing on his fate while ignoring the real issues, we really do inch closer to an Orwellian world.
Read more: Rights + Justice