I’m trying to sort out the ongoing NSA surveillance story, doing so with no special knowledge, one way or the other. There’s a great article in the NYT online about Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Laura Poitras. It’s actually about Poitras, but Greenwald hogs a lot of the story. (I think the article is going to appear in next Sunday’s magazine).
Above all I remain mixed about the story as a whole, the technology about which it reports, and the people who are leaking the information. On the one hand, I’m sure that the revelations by Snowden et al. contribute to the public good, to know about the NSA surveillance programs and their extent. On the other hand, I’m not sure about the programs themselves, whether and in what ways the programs secure the public good or threaten it.
Once we know what we know about these surveillance programs, I’m thinking that how one responds to the information eventually comes down to trust and to scale. That is, am I going to trust Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras (and let’s add Julian Assange and Bradley Manning) or am I going to trust, let’s say, Diane Feinstein, a person with access to classified material who also happens to be an elected official, and the representative democracy she represents? Senator Feinstein is quoted here:
“I read intelligence carefully,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, shortly after the first Snowden articles appeared. “I know that people are trying to get us. . . . This is the reason the F.B.I. now has 10,000 people doing intelligence on counterterrorism. . . . It’s to ferret this out before it happens. It’s called protecting America.”
I’m not so naïve to think that politicians are incorrupt, but I’m also sure Feinstein reads intelligence carefully. And I bet Greenwald reads carefully too. I would love to see a debate between them. I think Feinstein would tear him apart. The problem with Greenwald isn’t that he’s smart. It’s that he seems to think he’s smarter than maybe he actually is, smarter than the rest of us, whose interest he seeks to defend, and smarter than the government, whose power he seeks not so much limit but to undermine.
But what about what is he smart? That Greenwald wants to undermine government and that part of the story is about elations of individual self-empowerment are both suggested here: At times, they talked so animatedly that they disturbed passengers who were trying to sleep; they quieted down. “We couldn’t believe just how momentous this occasion was,” Greenwald said. “When you read these documents, you get a sense of the breadth of them. It was a rush of adrenaline and ecstasy and elation. You feel you are empowered for the first time because there’s this mammoth system that you try and undermine and subvert and shine a light on — but you usually can’t make any headway, because you don’t have any instruments to do it — [and now] the instruments were suddenly in our lap.”
So is that, then, what the story is about? A particular surveillance program or the power of government per se? That Greenwald thinks our government is not smart, i.e. that it’s stupid is suggested here:
[The] discussion turned to the question of coming back to the United States. Greenwald said, half-jokingly, that if he was arrested, WikiLeaks would become the new traffic cop for publishing N.S.A. documents. “I would just say:‘O.K., let me introduce you to my friend Julian Assange, who’s going to take my place. Have fun dealing with him.’ ”Poitras prodded him: “So you’re going back to the States?” He laughed and pointed out that unfortunately, the government does not always take the smartest course of action. “If they were smart,” he said, “I would do it.”
The problem, of course, is that maybe “the government” is actually smarter than Greenwald credits, and maybe there are people in government who know more about these kinds of threats that face the country than do Greenwald, Snowden, Poitras, Assange, and Manning. It’s impossible to say, because the relevant information remains classified. And that’s the conundrum, because we are asked to trust our elected representatives, while we ourselves know next to nothing; and we’re also supposed to oversee government and come to independent, critical decisions about it. I’m not sure that there’s any way out of this predicament, and that this predicament is going to define the politics of information.
Now we know more, thanks to Snowden, et.al, and I’m not saying this is not a good thing, to know more instead of less. But the other side of the conundrum is this. Nobody ever elected Greenwald, Poitras, Snowden, or Manning, and on what other basis can they be trusted with the massive amounts of information now available in the digital age? On their own judgement and/or putative incorruption? Snowden said somewhere that he could not bear to live in a country that violates the rights of its citizens, only to find refuge in the Russia of Vladimir Putin.
This should have come as no surprise. All of a sudden, in the digital age, we have individuals like Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras, Assange, and Manning who represent nobody but themselves, who are responsible to the greater good, not formally, but only as they imagine it, who now are in control of vast stores of information. We are supposed to respect and admire the lone ranger, the individual who stands up for freedom, and therein lies a kind of attraction. But that too is a myth, a distinctly American one. And this too makes me queasy, the possibility that self-empowered individuals vetted and checked by no third party can do a lot of damage to the genuine public good.
The question of scale comes up here in the article: Poitras possesses a new skill set that is particularly vital — and far from the journalistic norm — in an era of pervasive government spying: she knows, as well as any computer-security expert, how to protect against surveillance. As Snowden mentioned, “In the wake of this year’s disclosure, it should be clear that unencrypted journalist-source communication is unforgivably reckless.” A new generation of sources, like Snowden or Pfc. Bradley Manning, has access to not just a few secrets but thousands of them, because of their ability to scrape classified networks. They do not necessarily live in and operate through the established Washington networks — Snowden was in Hawaii, and Manning sent hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks from a base in Iraq. And they share their secrets not with the largest media outlets or reporters but with the ones who share their political outlook and have the know-how to receive the leaks undetected.
Faith and elation? Our populations are huge, the information is massive, the systems are big and interconnected to everything, and about that there’s nothing one can do short of some kind of apocalypse. Our democracy is a profoundly imperfect one, and its people is fallible. The short of it is that we don’t trust the government and we shouldn’t trust government, while being asked by activists not to trust a democratically representative government on the basis of a trust in persons who represent no one and are responsible to nobody.
Or it could be that trust has nothing to do with the way we live today, and that the phenomenon represented by Snowden et al. are part and parcel of the very system their acts are intended to subvert. That may very well be the case. But if it’s all “system” then I don’t see how we assess anything, not morally and not politically.