March 07, 2014

Edward Snowden, Tattletale

With regard to the following, I urge you to keep in mind several critical facts.

Given all the publicly available evidence, when reporting on the Snowden documents is completed, the general public will have seen only 1% to 2% of all the documents involved. I've analyzed in detail how deeply problematic this is. That's putting it mildly, and with excessive politeness. In fact, this highly selective publishing of leaks is insulting, disgusting, and profoundly offensive.

That earlier essay also discusses the hugely significant fact that Snowden himself, Greenwald, the Guardian and every other so-called "investigative journalist" taking part in this story have willingly and enthusiastically adopted the State's rationales for disclosure and, more importantly, non-disclosure. I've discussed this problem with regard to Greenwald in particular here.

The meaning and final results of this approach are as follows:
Consider the enormous value of the hugely restricted publication of the Snowden documents to the various States involved. Rusbridger, Greenwald, et al. all trumpet the great triumph represented by the "debate" publication has engendered -- the clamor of public voices demands "reform," so committees will be formed, investigations will be undertaken, and when the dust has settled, life for the States involved will go on almost exactly as before (remember: if the NSA were disbanded today, identical surveillance would continue via other agencies and institutions of power) -- and the States will be able to claim that the public knows the "truth," and their activities now have the full blessing of informed public consent.
In short, the methodology adopted by Snowden and the favored journalists is leading straight to complete and utter disaster.

It is also necessary to mention that many of the published documents are offered only with redactions, which are sometimes substantial. Not only that but, as a rule, no explanation is offered as to why particular information has been redacted. Similarly, we are offered only the most general of explanations, if that, for why roughly 98% of the documents will never see the light of day. This presents the general public -- for whose benefit all this heroic work is allegedly undertaken -- with an insurmountable problem of evaluation and understanding.

I explained the problem of selective information -- and in this case, the information the unwashed public is provided is highly selective -- in one of the first articles I wrote about this story, when the journalists' methods had already become clear: see the concluding section of "Fed Up with All the Bullshit," from June of last year. There is a host of questions we simply will never be able to answer. For example, is what we've been allowed to know the worst of what the NSA is doing? It's entirely possible there are far worse things going on. We don't know. It appears we will never know. (And this is not even to mention the activities of all those other agencies: the CIA, the FBI, etc., etc.) Moreover, because the information we are being provided is curated with such care, we don't even know what questions we ought to be asking.

The general reaction to the Snowden leaks and the journalists covering the story -- which is to laud them as "heroes" and to lavish them with every award under the sun -- seems to proceed from what is a third-grader's understanding of the issues involved. We've been told something that we hadn't known (despite the fact that the general outline of what we've been told had been clear to many of us for some time), and what we've been told is very bad. Therefore: woohoo! This is appalling and incredibly dumb.

Now, via Intercept This (a delightful and witty account which I recommend to you, along with Glenn Greenbacks), we can read Snowden's testimony to the European Parliament. I do not offer the following comments to attack Snowden personally. It seems that Snowden has taken great risks to reveal even what comparatively little has been revealed. (I say "seems" because, with every new development, my doubts grow stronger as to whether anything about this story is what it appears to be. I don't think we know anything close to the full truth about any aspect of it.) My concern is and has always been the methodology involved, and how that methodology plays directly into the interests of the States involved. The approach of Snowden and his favored journalists is an enormous boon to those States in countless ways.

Several of Snowden's remarks are highly objectionable ("I love my country, and I believe that spying serves a vital purpose and must continue"; some other doozies are highlighted by the Twitter accounts linked above), but two statements are hideous. First, we have this:
I will now respond to the submitted questions. Please bear in mind that I will not be disclosing new information about surveillance programs: I will be limiting my testimony to information regarding what responsible media organizations have entered into the public domain.
Once isn't enough, so Snowden repeats and briefly amplifies the same idea at the conclusion of his testimony:
As stated previously, there are many other undisclosed programs that would impact EU citizens' rights, but I will leave the public interest determinations as to which of these may be safely disclosed to responsible journalists in coordination with government stakeholders. I have not disclosed any information to anyone other than those responsible journalists.
I emphasize that none of this represents a new approach by Snowden. He has consistently described his method in the same terms from the beginning.

Two points from that earlier discussion are worth repeating here. Snowden has always been at pains to assure everyone -- and most particularly, to assure the State -- that he doesn't want to threaten the State in any serious way. And even though his major concern is with mass surveillance, that, too, would be acceptable to him in general terms, provided it is sanctioned by "informed public consent," and even though he himself would choose differently.

But look again at those concluding remarks to the EU. "[T]here are many other undisclosed programs that would impact EU citizens' rights..." Many other undisclosed programs that affect tens of millions of people. Maybe they'll find out about them, maybe they won't. And Snowden himself won't make that decision. "Responsible journalists in coordination with government stakeholders" will decide. We've witnessed this game for nine months; we know how it's played. The "responsible journalists" and "government stakeholders" will allow us to see perhaps 2% of all the documents Snowden gathered up. With redactions, and without explanations of the redactions or explanations, even in general terms, of what we will never be told.

But honestly, it's more than slightly ridiculous to parse these statements further. Snowden's formulation, and the adoption of his methodology by the "responsible journalists" involved, mean only one thing: these are, ultimately, State-sanctioned leaks. This is State-sanctioned whistleblowing. Whatever dangers much wider, and much more rapid, disclosure might have carried have been entirely obliterated. What remains constitutes no threat of any remotely serious kind to the States implicated. Yes, there will be hearings, some "reforms," and life for the States will go almost exactly as before. Your life, on the other hand ... well, who gives a damn about your life. (One clarification is required. There are undoubtedly some details that will be published that the States would prefer to keep secret. Ideally, of course, the States would prefer to tell the public nothing at all. But the States must deal with the reality that Snowden took a lot of documents. Given that, the methodology followed by the "responsible journalists," and by Snowden himself, is everything the States could desire. Therefore, given the overall context once Snowden made off with the documents, what has been and will be published is State-sanctioned and State-approved in the sense I've described. And always keep in mind that the "responsible journalists" utilize the same rationales for disclosure and non-disclosure that the States do.)

This is not whistleblowing as it has been understood, when information that a State decidedly does not want disclosed is made public, and which then causes serious disruption to the State at a minimum. A tattletale is "a child who tells a parent, teacher, etc., about something bad or wrong that another child has done : a child who tattles on another child." Other definitions are in accord.

Be sure to appreciate the meaning of the highlighted phrase: a tattletale is someone who reports "something bad or wrong" to an authority. And that is precisely what Snowden has done. He has entrusted the documents to "responsible journalists," who have adopted the rationales and methods of the States themselves. Moreover, these "responsible journalists" work together with "government stakeholders" to determine which documents may be "safely disclosed" on the basis of factors that are explained in only the vaguest and most vacuous of terms. We haven't escaped the oppression and abuses of authority: we have only added to the authorities who decide what we will be allowed to know. Before, we were concerned with oppression by the State. Now we can look forward to oppression by the State and by those "responsible journalists" who have lucked into the story of a lifetime, which they then stripped of almost all meaning and impact.

So let us try to use words with precision. Henceforth: Edward Snowden, tattletale. As for these heroic, trail-blazing, State-coddling "responsible journalists" ... hmm. Patsies. Jerks. Contemptible fools and, hardly incidentally, themselves seekers of wealth and power.

I have one request, in the nature of truth in advertising. I want to see all future stories relying on the Snowden documents accompanied by a stamp in which appear the following words. We are provided similar guarantees in connection with food and drugs, for example, and I see no reason not to adapt the practice to "journalism," given what that term now appears to mean. Each such story should carry this ironclad assurance:
This story contains those facts, and only those facts, that we and the State have determined it is safe for you to know. We will never tell you anything else, and we will most certainly never tell you anything more.