Whether in celebrity culture or in our Facebook-mediated interactions, we live in the age of the human being as a public brand. So there’s nothing surprising about the reaction to this week’s disclosures about the National Security Agency’s unprecedented surveillance program. In our cult-of-personality society, that reaction has been predictably — and unfortunately — focused less on the agency’s possible crimes against the entire country than on Edward Snowden, the government contractor who disclosed the wrongdoing.
Almost universally, the government officials, pundits and reporters who comprise Permanent Washington have derided Snowden. For instance, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D‑Calif.) bashed him for committing “treason.” Likewise, establishment pundits from CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin to the New York Times’ David Brooks loyally defended government’s national security agencies by respectively assaulting Snowden as a “narcissist” and a loser who “could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school.”
Though they failed to show that Snowden’s disclosures endanger national security, these attacks do tell an important story — not about the whistleblower, but about America.
First and foremost, the backlash reveals that Permanent Washington doesn’t work for We the People — it works to protect itself. We know this because whereas Snowden is vilified for disclosing information that’s inconvenient to Permanent Washington, those who leak classified information that is advantageous to Permanent Washington are left alone.
Yes — most of those slamming Snowden expressed no outrage when the White House recently leaked Obama-glorifying information about the president’s assassinations of alleged terrorists. Same thing when it came to John Brennan. As Reuters’ Jack Shafer notes, after the president’s counterterrorism adviser leaked administration-defending information about a terrorist attack, “instead of being prosecuted for leaking sensitive, classified intelligence, Brennan was promoted to director of the CIA” — and few of those now complaining about Snowden expressed any outrage.
Of course, Permanent Washington’s self-interested assaults on Snowden will inevitably find some support among the general public. The question is: Why?
This gets to the second way that this week’s events expose far more ugly truths about us than about Snowden.
In a democratic society, as Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald put it, “we’re supposed to know virtually everything about what (government officials) do: That’s why they’re called public servants.” That’s why, until given reason not to, we should naturally sympathize with — and support protections for — whistleblowers like Snowden.
But that’s the thing: Our core notions about transparency and self-governance have been under withering assault by Permanent Washington. Over time, that assault has succeeded in convincing many Americans to embrace the authoritarian view that says whistleblowers are a bigger problem than the government crimes they expose.
To understand what’s wrong with that attitude, consider the critics through the prism of history.
Those castigating Snowden probably would have insisted that the biggest crime of the Vietnam War was Daniel Ellsberg publishing the Pentagon Papers. They likely would have also said that the biggest crime of Watergate was Deep Throat blowing the whistle.
It is the same authoritarian argument against Snowden today — and until we wake up to the real agenda at work, Permanent Washington will continue undermining civil liberties and America’s democratic ideals in any way it can.