Conservatives and Snowden
One of the axioms utilized by H.L. Mencken in analyzing politics in the United States stated that Americans were unable to grasp arguments on their face and instead needed them recast in pure Manichean terms, with the most repellent of devils on one side and the purest of angels on the other.
Mencken was on to something there, something that still holds true today, as is shown by the debate concerning the NSA scandal. This scandal is being fought out -- particularly among conservatives -- on purely Manichean grounds. Certain commentators insist that since the NSA operates to protect national security, this in and of itself ends the argument. The opposite side claims that the NSA programs in question, from Prism and Tempora on down, are tools of Satan (i.e., Barack Obama -- well, he was in that Bible miniseries, wasn't he?) intended to uproot the Constitution and replace it with a Big Brother-style dictatorship.
The same dichotomy occurs with Edward J. Snowden, the NSA functionary who revealed the information. Divided into almost identical cohorts, one crowd condemns Snowden as a criminal, some to the point of accusing him of treason, while their opposite numbers hail him as a grand patriot, one with the Minutemen and the Green Mountain Boys. All of this is asserted with the standard deployment of fireworks, stink bombs, bull-roarers and bonfires to drive off the demons and hymns and hosannas to attract the approval of the angels.
Despite all the uproar, any cursory examination of the case suggests that all the above are in fact true -- that the NSA programs are a line of defense against terrorism and a tool of petty dictatorship, and that Edward Snowden is a criminal -- though not guilty of treason as such -- who stumbled, in his nerdy way, into doing something useful for the health of the country.
A large segment of the conservative elite -- ranging from Peter Wehner of Commentary and Andrew C. McCarthy at NRO to Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush on the political side, have come down in favor of the NSA on the basis of the national security argument. They're perfectly correct to do so, as far as it goes. Anyone present in NYC on 9/11, or for that matter Boston at the end of the last marathon, knows beyond any argument that we need some sort of proactive signals intelligence system to stay ahead of the Jihadis. (This despite the fact that these systems have failed to detect any of the recent terror attacks.)
But their thinking simply does not go far enough. None of these men can quite grasp the mentality of Barack Obama. To them, national security trumps everything -- and that includes personal benefits. They can't picture an American politician who would put anything at all -- particularly personal ambition -- ahead of the nation's welfare. None of the politicians involved would have ever thought of takingadvantage of the NSA. And despite all the left-wing ravings from 2001 to 2008, no evidence has ever been presented that any of them did.
But Obama? That's another story. All the individuals mentioned above grew up amid America's civic culture and imbibed its values. Obama spent many of his formative years in Indonesia, a culture in which politics has two purposes: keeping the fellahin in line and enriching the upper class. When he went into politics, he naturally gravitated toward the one place in the U.S. that most closely fits that model: Cook County.
Obama has never encountered a system that he has not abused. This includes academia, the justice system, and politics on the local, state, and national level. Though we lack the details, it's certain that he manipulated the academic system -- there's no other way to explain his rise from a second-tier West Coast college to the leading American universities with no visible academic attainments whatsoever. His political career is marked by the type of chicanery that used to destroy careers but today is excused -- at least with Democrats -- with a kind of "isn't-he-such-a-rogue" whimsy, and includes bushwhacking his own mentor, Alice Palmer, digging into Jack Ryan's private life to wreck his Senate campaign, and so on up to his arrangement with Candy Crowley during the last presidential debates.
To argue that this figure, with his third-world sense of political responsibility and his Chicago-honed ethics, would not abuse any possible resource he could get his hands on simply beggars credulity. One of his former political partners, now residing in a cell in the Federal Correctional Institution, Englewood, once referred to a vacant senatorship as a "valuable f*ckin' t'ing." Obama found a lot of "valuable f*ckin' t'ings" when he got to Washington, among them the NSA.
Is there any doubt that he abused it? From we've heard so far, every safeguard carefully erected to protect the citizenry has simply been thrown aside. In 2005, The New York Times went into fits over the fact that the original NSA interception programs executed under the Patriot Act might, in the fullness of time, accidentally record a domestic phone conversation. Today we're told that the NSA is recording and storing information on every phone call, email, and credit transaction made in the country, and we're supposed to feel at ease about it. It's only "metadata" (which doesn't tell them exactly how to locate the actual data, now does it? No -- who would think that?), and has simply been filed, and will never be accessed unless an offense is committed. (Filed how? By name, we have to assume -- which says plenty in and of itself. See how simply abuses unfold out of these practices as a matter of course?)
This will all have to be corrected. We will have an opportunity to do so when the entire security system is overhauled, as it will have to be now under the assumption that the Russians and Chinese have been through Snowden's flash drives and know everything. When that occurs, people like McCarthy, Cheney, and Bush will be needed for their knowledge, experience, and influence. But the first step is to come out of denial.
One of the things we'll need to do is clean out the Snowdens, who are no doubt encrusted in the current structure like barnacles. Snowden (his fans have taken to calling him "Ed," as if they used to hang out with him in the computer club in high school) is not a patriot or a traitor, for the simple fact that he doesn't know enough to be either of those things. Snowden is a type who is endemic within the information technology industry -- a man who knows his specialty with the thoroughness of a clinical obsessive/compulsive, and absolutely nothing else. Not how to peel a potato, not how to tie his shoes. (I worked in IT for five years. I recall having to explain to one of our codies -- a man in his late 20s -- in the NYC Financial District post office on Pine Street that no, you don't need to put a regular first-class letter into an oversize Priority envelope to mail it. You just put a stamp on it a send it off. He was skeptical.)
This is shown clearly by Snowden's apparent lack of knowledge concerning Bradley Manning, which should have given him a clear idea of what he was getting into, and his erudite discussions about Hong Kong, which he took to be an independent city-state in the forefront of "free-speech issues." Since fleeing to Moscow he has been desperately seeking asylum in countries like Italy, France, and Iceland, all of which are American allies, and would be obliged to send Snowden streaking home, national security interests being dominant in such situations. (This is underlined by his comments over the weekend that the NSA and Germany are "in bed together." There is, of course, a reason for that -- it's called NATO, and it's been around for a while.)
Such a man can be neither a cat-stroking Bond villain nor a Patrick -- oh, sorry; "Pat"-- Henry. (Who would rather have been shot than run to another nation for asylum.) What happened was that his controller at WikiLeaks, whose involvement tosses out the "patriot" claim in and of itself, thought it was the best method of hurting their deadly enemy, the NSA, and prodded Snowden into action, probably explaining what to do every step of the way. He was then obviously dumped and left to fend for himself. In the end, Snowden is a bystander in his own story. (We should also consider the fact that by this time both the Russian FIS and the Chinese "Blue Army" have penetrated WikiLeaks from top to bottom, leading to yet further skepticism of the "patriot" claim.)
There exist certain priorities at this point, chief among them reforming the NSA and related organizations and assuring that this thing is pinned to Obama from here to eternity. Seen in that light, both the national security and traitor/hero debates are no more than distractions. The danger now is that scandals that should, by any sane measure, be crippling to the Obama administration will instead take down the conservative movement. Our elites must not seek explanations in malice when stupidity is enough, and the Snowden on Rushmore crowd needs to be a little less desperate in its need for heroes.