To damn Snowden is to miss the point

Ever since the world heard of Edward Snowden, former NSA agent Dr. John Schindler, also known by his Twitter handle 20committee, has embarked on a crusade to show that Snowden is a disingenuous traitor, not a heroic whistle blower. Over the years, he has accumulated a veritable mountain of evidence in favor of his case.

As a regular follower of Schindler who certainly does not treat everything he says as gospel, I find the case against Edward Snowden convincing. But I fear John’s efforts are misdirected, as though if people saw Snowden for what he really is, then the widespread mistrust of the NSA which he helped to foster would somehow dissipate.

The truth is very different. Edward Snowden could get up tomorrow and declare himself a fanatical admirer of Joseph Stalin and a supporter of starving kulaks in the morning and shooting “enemies of the people” in the evening, and it would not make a significant difference. Snowden admiration is a symptom — not a cause — of the real problem.

A massive breach of trust

The United States is presently in the throes of one of the worst crises of trust between the government and the citizens it is supposed to serve in its entire history. It is a crisis that cuts across political and cultural lines. It is a breach that will take years if not decades to repair, if ever.

We’re not talking “mere” personal corruption here, but the fundamental violation by government agencies of their stated mandate — their very reason for existing and having power in the first place.

There is hardly a government body or agency whose malfeasance has not either been proven or seriously alleged by reliable and often official sources and investigations. Prosecutors and police officers who knowingly put innocent people in jail. An ostensibly impartial tax agency that persecutes political enemies. An environmental agency that pollutes. An intelligence agency caught farming out or participating in torture. An office tasked with protecting highly sensitive information of people who work for the federal government which fell asleep on the job. The list goes on.

In far too many instances, said agencies have responded with the equivalent of:

Fuck you. We’re the government and we do what we want. We are above law, we are above accountability, we are above scruples and basic decency. And there’s nothing you can do about it, anyway.

In such an atmosphere, trying to claim that the NSA is alone in not abusing the enormous power it has comes off as a not-very-convincing attempt at special pleading. This is especially true since — for all the right reasons! — the NSA can never be anywhere near as transparent to the public as other government agencies. This is true if Edward Snowden had never existed.

This crisis has bubbled and simmered on the watch of both Republican and Democratic Presidents and Congresses. Assigning exact blame, while important, is not quite as crucial right now as finding a way to fix things. It will be a lot harder to clean this mess than it was to make it.

What can the NSA do in the meantime to regain the American people’s trust, in this period of such deep mistrust? Let me suggest a few ideas from the perspective of a non-expert but informed citizen’s perspective:

Embed journalists:

Yes, many journalists are ignorant, partisan hacks. But fair and accurate reporting has not perished entirely from the earth — witness Jake Tapper, for instance. The NSA would do well to allow trusted and fair people to report regularly on the NSA — interviewing present and former employees, telling cleared stories from its history and present — in a way that would allow the public to get a look in on this ostensibly sinister agency.

Make a TV show:

A regular TV show about the workings of the NSA would do wonders for it no less than such shows have done for other law enforcement and intelligence agencies (FBI, CIA &c). The key point here would not be to be perfectly accurate about its operations (which would frankly be dangerous as other intel agencies would easily be able to deduce countermeasures) but to humanize the people who work there, make them relatable and show that they are not the American equivalent of the Stasi. The show can and should include genuine moral dilemmas and human failings, as well as rooting out of malfeasance. This would be an important step towards making the NSA’s case for being trusted more.

Give more interviews:

People who watch TV or listen to radio should hear what the other side has to say on the NSA issue, not from politicians or hacks but from actual practitioners. The following should be avoided by the same:

“NSA provides security and their methods work”

This is true. It also misses the point. In theory, we could turn the USA into a Stalinist police state. This would unquestionably be even more effective against terrorism. I’ve no doubt that strident anti-commie John Schindler would never want to live in such a country.

Better to take privacy concerns seriously, not flippantly, and explain how they do so (in a way that’s cleared, obviously). Another way to gain trust would be to tell of their own “red lines”: that they, too, have moral boundaries they will not cross, and under which they would either resign or expose the matter to Congress or to the public. That alone would be a method of reassurance.

Caution: long and rough journey ahead

The point of all such efforts is not to convince the internet trolls or the fanatics, but the broad base of normal Americans who are seeing ruling body after ruling body betray them. At least, that’s how I see it.

You may now resume your regularly scheduled Snowden debates.