Politico recently argued that Edward Snowden’s worst fear has come true. That is to say, nothing is changing as a result of his leaks. Politico speculates that this is partly due to Snowden himself:
“It’s like a magician’s misdirection — everybody’s focused on Snowden. It’s a chase story,” said Peter Earnest, director of the International Spy Museum. “My kids used to read ‘Where’s Waldo’ when they were growing up — this has all the aspects of that.”
A 36-year CIA veteran, Earnest said he was struck by how much of the media and public attention has focused on Snowden and how little had settled on the NSA and other programs that America’s top spies have had to acknowledge. On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper even apologized to Feinstein in a public letter for giving her committee “erroneous” information.
There’s one question that I’m not seeing getting asked though: was anybody really surprised to find out that the NSA was eavesdropping on the world? Truthfully when I first heard about it, my reaction was a big “Meh”. But as Peter Earnest points out, it’s not the content of Snowden’s leaks that get peoples’ attention. It’s Snowden himself.
Snowden is a poster child.
It’s one thing to have abstract knowledge of something happening. And yet, when you attach a human face to it, it becomes of import. A quote that has been frequently misattributed to Stalin says: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”
There’s some truth to this fake quote. When you first heard about 9/11, was it the fact that 3,000 people died that got your attention? Probably not. What got your attention was the recordings of people emotionally talking about what happened to them in the Twin Towers. What got your attention was the video of people running from the flying debris of the collapsing tower. Remember that chilling image of the man falling from the towers?
When a charity solicits donations, what’s the first thing that grabs your attention? Is it the statistic about how many zillions of children are affected by this horrible disease? More likely, it’s the picture of the poor child suffering from this disease.
The point of all this is: information is important, but it doesn’t get people fired up to support a cause. What really gets peoples’ attention is the lone career intelligence officer running from the most powerful nation on earth because he leaked information that hurt powerful people. People don’t get the true breadth of our nation’s overreaching intelligence community until we see our government blatantly violating international law to hunt down a “29-year old hacker” (as Obama describes him).
And that is far more important than any damaging information Snowden could have leaked.