January 7, 2014
Moscow has always been hard on idealists. So it’s no surprise to find the world-renowned civil libertarian Edward Snowden feeling shaky midway through his first Russian winter. In a televised Christmas message recorded by Britain’s Channel 4, Snowden waxed alternately as grandiose and apocalyptic as a Dostoyevsky character.
On one hand, the former NSA analyst who stole a hoard of classified documents from the spy agency and passed them around to selected journalists sees himself as a world historical figure.
“The mission’s already accomplished,” he told the Washington Post. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated … I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”
On the other hand, we’re all doomed. Even George Orwell had no clue. Snowden insists that government surveillance has far outstripped anything dreamed of in the dystopian novel “1984.”
“The types of collection in the book — microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us — are nothing compared to what we have available today. We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go,” Snowden said. “Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person.”
“A child born today,” he lamented, “will … never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves (or) an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.”
Probably not, because they’ll post it on Facebook, along with kitten videos and photos of their lunch.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Frankly, I wonder if Snowden actually read “1984,” which is less about surveillance techniques than the police state mentality: Big Brother, “War is Peace,” The Two Minutes Hate, children informing on their parents, etc.
Indeed, Snowden himself appears to exhibit a classic case of what Orwell called “doublethink.”
“To know and not to know,” Orwell wrote, “to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic … to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy.”
Or, to put it another way, to flee the totalitarian excesses of the U.S. government while taking refuge in countries where the concept of “privacy” scarcely exists. To condemn NSA snooping while handing its secrets to China, the world’s leading practitioner of computerized military and commercial espionage.
This is mission accomplished?
So no, I’m not buying Edward Snowden the savior. Whatever the man’s motives, he’s a traitor. The real scandal is how he got a security clearance to start with.
Anyway, despite the melodrama, it’s not technology that threatens freedom of conscience. Quite the opposite. While in Russia, Snowden should read Vasily Aksyonov’s “Generations of Winter” to understand the repression Stalin achieved with gadgets even more primitive than Orwell depicted.
Something else that didn’t exist in George Orwell’s day, of course, were jihadist websites exporting criminal conspiracies worldwide. It was also much harder to transfer money and to communicate from halfway around the world, and in nothing like real time.
Bomb-making instructions weren’t easily available on the Internet, making mass murder harder to bring off from remote locations. International terrorism existed, but on a far less dangerous scale.
Certainly the terrorist threat can be exaggerated. However, unless you really don’t want your government doing all it can to prevent mass casualty strikes, most of what the NSA does appears both necessary and inevitable.
Here’s something else the melodramatic Mr. Snowden said: “Recently we learned that our governments, working in concert, have created a system of worldwide mass surveillance watching everything we do.”
This is such sheer, self-dramatizing humbug I can’t think why anybody pretends to believe it. At worst, your telephone “metadata” and mine are stored in a huge NSA database, where it will be purged after five years unless you start dialing 1-900-HotVirgins in Yemen — at which point the FBI might seek a search warrant to check you out.
That sensor in your pocket tracking your whereabouts 24/7? It’s the GPS function in your cellphone. You want to hide from the government (or your wife)? Shut it off or hang it from the dog’s collar.
“I don’t know what he’s up to, Sergeant, but he’s still under the front porch.”
For that matter Amazon and Citicard know a lot more about me personally than the NSA, using information I’ve willingly given them. So do Verizon, Facebook and my bank. But nobody makes me read on a Kindle or pay for things with a credit card. As long as the data exists, it can theoretically be abused.
NSA would be a rare bureaucracy if it didn’t overstep its bounds. However, until I see genuine victims of government abuse, I’ll keep thinking the Snowden affair has become the left’s equivalent of the Benghazi delusion: much ado about terrible crimes that haven’t actually happened.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com.