When you leak explosive government secrets to the news media, it’s safe to say that you open yourself up to, among other things, harsh criticism.
So it’s hardly a surprise that former vice president Dick Cheney, the hardest of the hardliners, has unloaded on National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, denouncing him as a “traitor” who might be working for China.
But Cheney, who made his remarks over the weekend on Fox News Sunday, was hardly the first to use the epithet. Last week, in an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America, House Speaker John Boehner said flatly of Snowden: “He’s a traitor.”
And when it comes to the name-calling and the demonizing, former and current public officials such as Cheney and Boehner hardly have a monopoly. Journalists can play that game, too.
Politico columnist Roger Simon wrote a sneering piece headlined “The slacker who came in from the cold” in which he dismissed Snowden as “29 and possessing all the qualifications to become a grocery bagger.”
(An aside: Is it just me or are these constant references to Snowden being 29, as if that somehow discredits him, out of line as well as annoying? Is the idea that someone so young is incapable of doing anything worthwhile? Really?)
To former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, Snowden is merely “a high school dropout who is a military washout.” And rather than go down in history as a significant whistle-blower, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote in a sublimely baffling outburst that he thought Snowden will “go down as a cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood.”
All of that outrage is perfectly understandable. Acts like Snowden’s arouse powerful passions. To some he is a hero, a principled man whose alarm at the security state’s secret surveillance compelled him to act, despite the consequences to his own life. To others he is, well, a traitor, an irresponsible, self-righteous egomaniac who placed himself above the law and put his country in great peril.
But it’s important that we — the news media and society as a whole — don’t get too caught up in it. While pinning labels on Edward Snowden may be a fine parlor game, it’s not nearly as significant as dealing with the information he revealed.
Even White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says it’s “appropriate” to have a national debate on government information gathering. But we wouldn’t be having one absent Snowden’s disclosures.
Maybe the government is right. Maybe the heightened security the surveillance of all those phone calls and e-mails makes possible is worth the erosion of privacy. But that’s something we as a country need to decide, not the president, whichever president, acting without our knowledge. Remember, even if you trust this particular president and/or his predecessor, there’s no guarantee that someday the White House won’t be occupied by someone you don’t want having access to all that “telephony metadata” and the like. (See Nixon, Richard.)
Even now, it’s not an easy debate to have. The proceedings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court are secret. Members of Congress who are briefed on the programs are constrained about what they can say. So are the Silicon Valley powerhouses that have cooperated with the PRISM initiative. On Tuesday, Google asked the surveillance court for permission to be more forthcoming about its role.
But despite the difficulties, a conversation has begun. The federal government has mounted an aggressive defense of the programs and has begun to release information to show that they are working. Some members of Congress seem committed to trying to rein in the excesses, no matter how uphill the struggle. And we’ve only just begun.
That’s where the primary focus should remain, not on whether or not Snowden is a duplicitous spoiled brat.
“Shoot the messenger” has been part of the lexicon for a long time, certainly since Sophocles’ prime, which was way pre-Twitter. It doesn’t just apply to actual old-school messengers and, as is frequently the case in this era, the news media. Ad hominem (and ad feminam) attacks are a time-dishonored way of avoiding uncomfortable subjects by beating up political opponents. And belaboring the appallingly 29-year-old slacker/traitor is a great way to change the subject.