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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 3/17/14

Citizen Snowden: Why he matters

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From the Democratic side, Secretary of State John Kerry also piled on Snowden with the "traitor" charge, as did Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the intelligence committee. In this key post, she is entrusted with the solemn and sworn duty to keep a tight, congressional rein on NSA's empire builders, but Feinstein has proven to be clueless, feckless, and obsequious -- a senatorial trifecta! "He violated the oath. He violated the law. It's treason," babbled the senator in June, while conceding that she knew nothing about the agency's wholesale invasion of the people's constitutional rights until the guy she calls a "traitor" revealed it to her.

Even more pathetic and damning was the rush by a mob of so-called "journalists" to tar and feather Snowden, joining NSA apologists to declare that he's a bratty malcontent and the real villain of the story. After all, they charge, he abused his position of trust by exposing -- Oh, the irony -- the government's villainy. Roger Simon of Politico, for example, showed the depth of his reportorial gravitas by gratuitously (and erroneously) dismissing the dissident as a low-level functionary with all the qualifications of "a grocery bagger." David Brooks of The New York Times chimed in with a pompous pile of psycho-babble about "young men in their 20s," finally diagnosing Snowden as an antisocial misfit who "self-indulgently short-circuited the democratic structures of accountability." And Richard Cohen, who passes as a liberal commentator at the Washington Post, offered this intellectual insight: "I think he'll go down as a cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood."

For a full-blown journalistic implosion, however, no one has topped the snit that Washington Post opinionator Ruth Marcus had last New Year's Eve. "The insufferable whistleblower," she titled her piece, then added "smug, self-righteous, egotistical, disingenuous, megalomaniacal, [and] overwrought" to her overwrought name-calling.

Snowden had "a duty of secrecy," she snapped -- as though no other ethical duty could possibly trump that authoritarian code. Marcus then bemoaned his "massive theft," which was massive only because NSA is continuously purloining billions of bits of our lives every day, a detail she dismissed by opining that the spy agency's intrusion "is not nearly as menacing as he sees it." How does she know that? Apparently, because her NSA sources said as much. Finally, she nailed her critique by sneering that whistleblowers as a group are "difficult" people because "they don't fit in," and that Snowden in particular "has an unpleasant personality."

I dwell on these public figures and media sparklies because they're supposed to be democracy's watchdogs, sounding off at threats with at least a few barks. We're told that the checks and balances of government and the skeptical inquiries of the Fourth Estate are our bulwarks against usurpation of our liberties. In that case, God bless America... and please hurry! In this historic "spy" scandal the supposed defenders of democracy have largely abandoned their posts and encamped with the usurpers.

An astonishing example of this was broadcast last June on Meet the Press. The guest was Glenn Greenwald, the excellent investigative journalist who had been given a full set of the downloaded NSA files by Snowden and has since published dozens of articles revealing their stunning contents. But NBC host David Gregory, rather than probing the who-what-when-where-why of the government's hidden program of illegal domestic spying, grilled his guest about Snowden's whereabouts and then fired point blank at honest journalism itself: "To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden," he asked in his best prosecutorial tone, "why shouldn't you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?"

Unperturbed, Greenwald fired right back, questioning why Gregory, who calls himself a journalist, would consider reporting to be a felony. In fact, the flummoxed Gregory was serving as a ventriloquist's dummy for the Bush and Obama regimes, both of which have relentlessly pushed a repressive legal theory that those who report on leaks of government secrets are felonious co-conspirators with the leakers. It's a backdoor way for authorities to shut down whistleblowers by intimidating the free press that would tell us about their findings. As Greenwald retorted to Gregory, "If you want to embrace that theory, it means that every investigative journalist in the United States who works with their sources, who receives classified information, is a criminal."

Digging out and reporting inconvenient secret truths about what the government and its corporate contractors are doing is not a crime -- it is, in fact, what real journalists are supposed to do. It's important to remind ourselves (and, apparently, to remind highly paid television personalities like Gregory) that the Bill of Rights was enacted for a reason, namely that the colonists had many harsh experiences with the heavy hand of authoritarian government. For example, the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures is not just a rhetorical flourish by James Madison, but a direct response to the British aristocracy's common use of "writs of assistance" against the colonists. These were essentially unlimited search warrants, allowing agents to barge into homes, businesses, whole villages, and anywhere else they chose to rifle through everyone's possessions and papers without stating what was being sought or why, even if none of the people ransacked was suspected of a crime.

Such tyrannical use of the law taught the framers of our nation's founding documents that liberty could not be trusted to the good will of the authorities, even in the new republic they were creating. Thus, they explicitly set forth our basic freedoms in the Bill of Rights as enforceable guarantees in the supreme law of the land.

But will those guarantees be enforced in the new legal and technological paradigm being put forth by NSA and its political sponsors? We now learn that the bullies no longer need red-coated agents to barge their way into our privacy, for they have created electronic writs of assistance that let them do so surreptitiously. And, as Snowden said, the most outrageous part is that they've done this "without a majority of society even being aware it was possible." Pumped full of hubris, these techno-aristocrats are taking America back to a pre-constitutional era. This is not an issue of mere technological progress or even of improved security, but a fundamental alteration of our rights, a changing of what it is to be American.

This is why we must have a gutsy, aggressive, truly free press. We will not have the Fourth Amendment -- or any other constitutional right -- without a vibrant First. In an article for The Nation last year, free speech champion John Nichols succinctly reiterated why a vigorous and skeptical media is so important: "The freedom of the press protection outlined in the First Amendment is not a privilege provided to reporters -- it is a tool established by the founders so that citizens would have access to the information they need to be their own governors."

That is the profound significance of what Edward Snowden has done for us, for future generations, and for honest, constitutional government in our Land of the Free.

Who is Edward Joseph Snowden?

Ironically, Edward Snowden is the product of the military-intelligence-industrial complex. As profiled by Janet Reitman in an in-depth Rolling Stone article, Snowden was raised in the suburban bubble of Crofton, Maryland, just 15 miles from NSA headquarters. Nearly everyone in town worked at NSA or for defense and intelligence contractors that dotted the area. A quiet boy and dedicated techie, Ed's real community and education came from internet sites, chat rooms, and games. Though very smart, he dropped out of school in the tenth grade, but worked hard to become "an IT whiz," as a young co-worker described him in 2007.

An unabashedly patriotic and idealistic young man, he enlisted in the Army in 2004, intending to fight in Iraq as a member of the Special Forces: "I believed in the nobility of our intentions to free oppressed people overseas," he told Reitman. But he was quickly disillusioned, learning in training that the Army was only taught killing, "not helping anyone."

After a serious injury at training camp, the Army discharged him. Soon afterward, Snowden signed on as a CIA computer technician -- where he not only burnished his expertise in electronics, but learned a lasting lesson. In 2007, working at the agency's Geneva station, he found a flaw in CIA software and took his concerns to his superiors. They were less than grateful to have their work questioned by a 24-year-old. A manager rewarded Snowden's integrity by putting a negative note in his personnel file, which killed any chances he had for advancement. In a recent interview, Snowden recounted what this experience taught him: "Trying to work through the system [will] only lead to punishment."

That is why it's ridiculously deceitful for President Obama to keep hammering at Snowden with the contention that it was unnecessary for the analyst "to basically dump a mountain of information" into public view, when he could have taken his concerns through channels. Snowden (and plenty of other whistleblowers) know that "channels" is the name of the forbidding swamp where truth and truth tellers are taken to be drowned. Yet, Obama persists in his sham assertion that Snowden would've been welcomed in from the cold by the spy hierarchy, because, "I signed an executive order well before Mr. Snowden leaked this information that provided whistleblower protection for the intelligence community for the first time."

Yes, he did. But he failed to mention that his order specifically exempts employees of government contractors from those protections -- and Snowden was a contract employee of NSA, first as a Dell Computer hireling, then as an employee of NSA's nearly $6 billion-a-year mega-contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton. As both Obama and Snowden knew, the president's order was useless to this whistleblower.

So, who is Edward Joseph Snowden, really? Officially, he's a thief. He's charged with stealing government property and communicating classified information without authorization. But a traitor? Even the establishment's official publication of record, The New York Times, calls him a straightforward whistleblower who "has done his country a great service" and deserves clemency. "When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law," wrote the Times on Jan. 1, "that person should not face life in prison at the hands of that same government."

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Jim Hightower is an American populist, spreading his message of democratic hope via national radio commentaries, columns, books, his award-winning monthly newsletter (The Hightower Lowdown) and barnstorming tours all across America.

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