One argument that has become prevalent among commentators is that National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden’s act of revealing secret US government surveillance programs is not “noble” or “heroic” or the act of a whistleblower because he fled the country for Hong Kong. Those who engage in civil disobedience historically have faced the consequences and not run when they broke the law.
MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry became one of the latest individuals to advance this argument when she shared her “beef” with Snowden on her weekend news program on June 29:
Let me just say how I feel about this. I understand the value of whistle-blowing, the knowledge of how our government conducts its business in the state of our civil liberties is crucial.
Here`s my beef with Ed Snowden – once you`ve decided to be a defender of those ideals, you have to be prepared to face the consequences. That is the whole point of civil disobedience, to show that you are willing to risk your own freedom, your own body, in order to bring attention to something that needs to be known.
Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested, attacked, smeared. Nelson Mandela went to prison for 27 years. Protesters right now, today, in the North Carolina statehouse are being arrested every Monday. This week, a state senator in Texas fought against devastating restrictions on abortion rights by filibustering for 11 hours without food, bathroom breaks, or sitting or leaning for even a moment.
Edward Snowden the other hand has gone on the run to countries with truly totalitarian regimes. China has imprisoned dozens of journalists on charges of revealing state secrets. Russia has a brutal record of discrediting, harassing, and beating journalists and anti-government activists, as well as stealing Super Bowl rings. Ecuador`s president has intimidated critics by pressing criminal libel charges against him.
Snowden is giving any country he hides in more leverage in their dealings with the U.S. When it comes to Russia, those dealings include trying to find a way out of the civil war in Syria.
Look, Snowden reportedly has more information with him. U.S. state secrets that he says are even more significant than what he`s already released, that Russia and China authorities will be more than happy to get their hands on, if they haven’t already, and if he wasn’t intending to spy on the U.S. for foreign governments — well, he’s as good as doing it now.
I can see the merit and the knowledge of the NSA programs, but Edward Snowden is risking a lot to save his own skin. That’s not something I call heroic.
There is a key difference between Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela and Edward Snowden. Both King and Mandela were defying unjust laws that were supported by systemic racism. Snowden, on the other hand, if one considers what he did as a supreme act of dissent, was expressly defying a national security state that is not operating transparently. Its operations are protected by secret law or secret interpretations of the law of which many members of Congress were not given briefings prior to his act. They were denied information on how the programs operated, despite repeated requests for information they were entitled to receive. And a secret court with federal judges serving on it decides whether to authorize surveillance or not but the American public does not get to read any of the rulings authorizing, in some cases, massive warrantless surveillance that can sweep up millions of Americans’ communications.
Snowden could have turned himself in and said he was defying the law, but would the public have even known what he was defying? President Barack Obama and others in government have maintained it all is legal because the three branches of government have been complicit in normalizing and perpetuating an ever-expanding surveillance state.
In any case, this argument is a red herring that distracts from the real issue because there is a case where someone engaged in multiple acts of civil disobedience and is on trial right now facing the possibility of being put in prison for life. His name is Pfc. Bradley Manning. I do not know if Harris-Perry is that familiar with his case because she has not covered it at all on her program.
Manning disclosed the “Collateral Murder” video, the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs, the US State Embassy cables, the “Gitmo Files,” a report from the Army Counterintelligence Center that presumed WikiLeaks was a “threat,” etc.
His attorney, David Coombs, cast Manning as someone idealistic who had engaged in an act that history would ultimately judge. He read a quote from King, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
Manning did not run to any country. He was arrested. He was subject to nine months of conditions that were equivalent to solitary confinement while in pretrial confinement at Quantico. He was in pretrial confinement for over three years before finally getting to a trial. And each video or set of documents he selected for release depended on research and a conscientious decision to disclose that because he found it was information the public should know.
Harris-Perry said “the whole point of civil disobedience” is “to show that you are willing to risk your own freedom, your own body, in order to bring attention to something that needs to be known.” Snowden did just that.
Speaking to the Socialism Conference in Chicago, IL, journalist Glenn Greenwald described the profound decision his source made:
When I asked him how he got himself to the point where he was willing to take the risk that he knew he was taking, he told me that he for a long time had been looking for a leader, somebody who would come and fix these problems. And then one day he realized there’s no point in waiting or a leader, that leadership is about going first and setting and example for others. What he ultimately said was he simply didn’t want to live in a world where the United States government was permitted to engage in these extraordinary invasions, to build a system that had as its goal the destruction of all individual privacy, that he didn’t want to live in a world like that and that he could not in good conscience standby and allow that to happen knowing that he had the power to help stop it.
Also, Greenwald said, “What was truly staggering and continues to be staggering to me was there was never an iota, never any remorse or regret or fear in any way. This was an individual completely at peace with the choice that he had made because the choice that he made was so incredibly powerful.”
In Russia, he has no passport. He cannot travel anywhere. He is apparently “under the care” of Russian authorities, according to Ecuador President Rafael Correa. He could probably be a spy, talk to the Russian authorities, hand over files to the government and they might be willing to make a bargain to allow him to remain in Russia. However, this has not apparently happened, even though he has been stranded in the transit zone of the Moscow airport for over a week.
Harris-Perry has no proof that Snowden has become a spy, even though she makes the explicit suggestion that he’s “as good as doing it now.” It is irresponsible to speculate like this, as it only serves to further enhance the political climate that makes it possible for the US government to prosecute leakers as if they are spies. (And, by the way, a state senator’s filibuster is nowhere near comparable to the courageous acts of King or Mandela, who actually risked their lives for freedom.)
During the part of the show where she had her guests discuss Snowden, some of the discussion centered on how his traveling distracted people from considering the importance of what he revealed. The guests seemed to blame him for this.
Raul Reyes, an attorney with NBC Latino, said, “We don’t talk about all those things as long as we have this geopolitical movie spy thing going on, which is his fault.”
On June 25, MSNBC contributor Jonathan Capehart similarly said, “We started off talking about NSA and what it`s doing and what it’s not doing and how it’s stretching the bounds of the Patriot Act. And now, we’re discussing whether he`s in Havana or Moscow and reporters jumping on flights that he`s not on.”
Such statements suggest that these people in the US media do not have any agency or will. They cannot cover what they want to cover. They have to cover the sensational or any news development that seems, to them, like something out of a political espionage thriller. The chase, as David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun said on “Reliable Sources” with Howard Kurtz, is “beyond catnip.” It’s “heroin for the media.”
That would make people like Harris-Perry, Capehart, Reyes and others, who blame Snowden for why they are not covering the contents of what he revealed, addicts.
This whole argument about how Snowden should have martyred himself and been arrested and faced life imprison if he really wanted to commit civil disobedience would be much more credible if Harris-Perry actually covered whistleblowers and had whistleblowers on her program to talk about these issues. A look over past shows indicates that on less than five programs there has been mention of “whistleblowers.”
She has not had someone like National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake on her program, someone who she could have a discussion with about what it really means to be a national security whistleblower. It does not appear she has had many experts on issues around whistleblowing or lawyers who have represented whistleblowers, like Jesselyn Radack, on her program either. She did not cover CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, who was sentenced to 30 months in prison for exposing the identity of an intelligence officer. So, given that, her “beef” is much more like willful ignorance than a valid issue with Snowden that merits further debate.