Treating Snowden as a ‘Personality’

The mainstream U.S. media prefers personalities over substance, so it was perhaps not a surprise that its focus at the first anniversary of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks was on his alleged peculiarities, not the frightening prospect of a Big Brother state, says ex-State Department official William R. Polk.

By William R. Polk

After finally getting around to reading the various articles that have come out on Edward Snowden, the latest being the Vanity Fair account, I find them not surprisingly as playing to the gallery — concentrating on his peculiar personality, not the substance of his revelations.

Snowden’s personality is presented as paradoxical (he wanted to be a Special Forces soldier and favored the invasion of Iraq), amusing (he apparently had an adolescent view of espionage), limited (with no education to match his self-taught training), shrewd (building up his stock portfolio for a rainy day), naive (assuming that suddenly the public would accept him as a hero), fearful (expecting a Mafia-style hit), etc.

Vanity Fair graphic accompanying its profile of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Vanity Fair graphic accompanying its profile of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.

All this is rather titillating, especially, when mixed as it was with sexy pictures of his girl friend. But very little thought was given to what it all means.

Even The Guardian pieces, which do concentrate on the documents, do little to put the disclosures about the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance in perspective. Yet that perspective was there long before Snowden. Sen. Frank Church summed it all up in a sentence or two in his 1975 Senate Committee investigation on intelligence activities:

“If a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back. … We must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”

That is to say, of course,  it makes no difference what drives this particular whistleblower — job insecurity, anger, jealousy, ambition, patriotism, fear or whatever — and it makes no difference whether he is left-wing or right-wing or apolitical or whether he is an attractive human being or not.

It is well-known principle of jurisprudence that major cases, which force consideration of important issues, are often brought by people who may be unimportant themselves and even unappealing human beings. In such matters, the medium is not the message.

Simply put, the real message of Snowden’s disclosures is that there is a growing capacity that could be used by any future government, Left, Right or Center, to subvert freedom completely. As Church rightly said, once the line is crossed, there is no return.

In light of that crucial message – while the public may be engaged by Snowden as a personality or rather as an “event” – someone needs to do what Church did and discuss what it all means.

Who today can explain how the checks and balances – so assiduously incorporated in the U.S. Constitution by our Founding Fathers – must be applied to the issue of freedom versus “security”? Indeed, who can explain what “security” really means? Where is today’s Frank Church?

William R. Polk was a member of the Policy Planning Council, responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia, for four years under Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He also was a member of the three-men Crisis Management Committee during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He is the author of some 17 books on world affairs, most recently Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change and Blind Man’s Buff, a Novel, both available at Amazon.

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13 comments on “Treating Snowden as a ‘Personality’

  1. Joe Tedesky on said:

    In my book, the jury is still out when it comes to Snowden. I sometimes wonder who is really behind our super spy. Could he be CIA? Senator’s Feinstein and Rogers seem to hate him, and it seems the CIA is bothersome to at least Senator Feinstein. Of course this is me at my cynical worst. You must excuse me, since last year I have been absorbed by reading all about the JFK, MLK, and RFK assassinations. To say the least I have fallen and I can’t get up from all that terrible history.

  2. Daniel Pfeiffer on said:

    The story you’re telling here is that the media and our political classes are not doing their jobs. This is not news, but is, by and large, true. But, following these stories one by one as they trickled out through the Guardian and other sites over the course of the last year, I had no trouble understanding them or their context in the grand scheme of things (sometimes second readings were required). You need only read any of the Guardian’s work in the last year or anything by Glenn Greenwald on this topic for context and analysis. And these are just the two easiest examples to find on the subject. I have read many others also doing fine work.

    “Who today can explain how the checks and balances – so assiduously incorporated in the U.S. Constitution by our Founding Fathers – must be applied to the issue of freedom versus “security”? Indeed, who can explain what “security” really means? Where is today’s Frank Church?”

    A Frank Church could not exist today, consigned to Confidentiality for Security Purposes(TM) as he/she would be. We are left to ourselves to inform ourselves and draw our own conclusions. That is the sad and sorry state of things now.

  3. F. G. Sanford on said:

    Unfortunately, we have to consider the possibility that the new America likes it this way. It reminds me of one of those “oral history” documentaries about Nazi Germany. Shortly after January 1933, a German housewife notes, “It was wonderful! I went out to do my shopping, and for the first time in years, there were no bums sleeping in doorways. There were no beggars or prostitutes. The streets seemed suddenly clean, and there were no suspicious characters congregating in the public parks.” Never mind they were all in Dachau, which started out more like a FEMA facility than a concentration camp. And lets not pretend nobody knew, either. If my memory serves, there were 329 such camps within Germany’s prewar borders…a secret akin to hiding an elephant in the refrigerator.

    Does anybody remember “Gypsy”, starring Natalie Wood? The striptease consists of removing just one glove, but the crowd goes wild. Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras seem to have choreographed the same plot. Pierre Olmidyar, the French-Iranian-American billionaire, who incidentally contributed millions to the Maidan coup which installed neo-Nazis in Ukraine, is bankrolling them. The slow, tantalizing “striptease” they’re performing has so far revealed nothing of prurient interest. No booty and no booby…just chaste and innocent Edward, who laments that our children will grow up never experiencing a private moment. Unlike Gypsy, they face lives of full frontal nudity in a titillating electronic peep show engineered by the surveillance state. His idealism is stunningly ironic given the sexting and web-cam frolicking in which so many of America’s “family values” freaks routinely engage.

    But back to the real hypocrisy, Glen is still holding out for more money in the “Pay to Play” NSA peep show . Meanwhile, “Yats” has publicly declared that the Eastern Ukrainians are “Untermenschen” (Gee, where have we heard that one before?) and their chief diplomat chants “Putin is a d**k-head”. Europe doesn’t seem concerned that a nuclear holocaust is brewing on their back porch, and American pundits are gloating over the “democracy” we’ve brought to Ukraine.

    If “damning with faint praise” is a metaphor for a “stab in the back”, then its mirror image is fawning with pompous indignation – otherwise known as a “limited hangout”. If the surveillance organs we have now don’t like you, they just whack you. Does “Todashev” ring a bell? Otherwise, Snowden’s revelations reveal only a vehicle for blackmail, and it appears that Americans really don’t care.

    • Joe Tedesky on said:

      There you go F.G., and thank you for giving me a visual of Natalie Wood…we all liked her! I see Fog Horn Leg Horn with hand on the little Chicken Hawk saying “Now there’s a chicken over there boy! Yeah, what are we seeing here…and when are you (Snowden) going giving something good? Expectations what expectations!

  4. Trippin on said:

    I would disagree only to the extent that the objective isn’t only a media infatuation with personality appealing to the Honey Boo Boo ethos of a dumbed-down America, though it is partly that. To my thinking, the focus on Snowden’s personality is a also concerted attempt to discredit the information he disclosed among those who might not be so distracted.

    And what’s most troubling is that ample evidence indicates that it’s working. I’ve heard many impugn his motives and use that as a basis for questioning the veracity of his leaks. They used to call that “cointelpro.” Today, we can rightly call it a “Snow job.”

  5. He’s needs to be treat as a traitor and a liar who’s lied about everything from his past, credentials, what he took, and his motives. There is No question he’s a traitor. He claims to have stolen all that classified sensitive intel as a whistle blower who had to reveal government over reach and constitutionalism violations no other motive. Was it necessary to committ the biggest classified intel theft in american history to do so. Wouldn’t a few hundred been enough to validate his claims and to tell us how maybe a thousand, but into the millions come on now.(red flag) A tru whistle blower only takes enough to prove there telling the truth not hundreds of thousands of documents. Secondly a true whistle blower only takes Relevant information to the the subject there blowing the whistle on. The vast majority of what he deliberately took had ZERO to do with his relentlessly proclaimed motives. Instead they had to do with the techniques, tactics, procedures, methodsof how we spy and gather intel on our enemies, co

    • competitors and allies. Not to mention information regarding the economy and military secrets. Military secrets he lied about having until he admitted to Brian Williams that he had them and that we just didn’t have to worry about having them published. Are you serious does that make any Logical sense for a sincere whistle blower to have such dangerous sensitive intel and the largest amount every stolen. All to simply let us know things the government could do and how invasive their surveillance is. Things we at least suspected anyway just more exaggerated of course it makes no sense. Why would he do that knowing full well what and how much he was taking as he took documents from different compartments and as much as he could. Isn’t that dangerous isn’t that suspicious. Ironic that he’s not workin for a foreign intel agency yet he took Exactly the things a foreign agent would want to take mind you again the vast majority have Zero to do with

      • with his stated reason for the biggest theft of classified intel in u.s. history. Nothing suspicious not even a little. If he were any other nationality most would instantly call his story pure bs and that he clearly had an alterior motive. That doesn’t change the fact that the nsa has crossed roads. That doesn’t change the fact that he has hundreds of thousands of documents no one outside of the nsa should. He didn’t sacrifice his life for us he planned on leaving and to the most anti- american nations he could find. There’s no way he didn’t know that any nations intel service that found out he had those kind of classified u.s. documents and so many would surely look after him no problem. Considering he had a gift from god on the worlds sole super powers most secret documents and in troves. He says he was trapped in russia. what did he expect he committed the biggest theft of classified u.s intel in history. What he thought he’d be free to go camping in front of the white house. He has his passportcancelled

  6. Yet still mysteriously lands in a russian airport where he’s only legally allowed to stay a certain amount of time, but is allowed to stay as long as needed while continually embarrassing us. What does telling china and hong kong where and what methods we spy on them with have to do with our 4th amendment rights. Are they not hacking us daily. Are they not successfully stealing our most expensive weapons and military secrets to use on us and our allies in the pacific. Have they not been caught shutting down thousands of the Pentagons defense networks. Yet our whistle blower hero wants to give them some more help with that. Why would someone who loves their nation do that. Deliberately let a rival who openly admits to planning on replacing your nation as the sole super power do that. What does revealing how and what methods we use with with sweden to spy on russia have to do with our 4th amendment rights. Are they not hacking and spying us daily even hitting us with the worst customer data theft in history

    • Dr. Frans B. Roos, Ph.D. on said:

      Will that be it Blackmoore 1990 or is there anymore spurts of patriotism coming?

      • You act as if its a bad thing. Point made. A true whistle blower with no other motives would’ve stolen enough to prove he’s not lying and to reveal Domestic 4th amendment violations. NOt into the millions to the point of being the biggest theft in u.s. history of classified intel. Further a true whistle blower Only takes Relevant info to what he’s blowing the whistle on. He’s done neither the exactl opposite to simply obsurd proportions. As most of what he Stole meaning at least 50% have Zero to do with his reasons for Stealing in the 1st place. Military secrets he lied about taking, but later admitted to brian williams. How we spy on enemies tactics, procedures, and everything else as evidence from the things he’s unnecessarily released. In other words national security documents in bulk more than any soviet spy could have even dreamed of successfully stealing. He knew what he was taking and how much he took as much as he possibly could. Odd that he’s a whistle blower yet he stole mostly things a spy

        • would take and in absolutely unnecessary quantities no matter how you try to justify it there is No justification for stealing so many danger files. Then immediately start shopping around for anti- american nations to go to with all that Stolen classified intel. Lands in hong and immediately begans trying to sell himself to china or russia. By revealing legitimate spying much like how they do us. Giving them both a heads up to how and where some of the places we’re spying on them. As if he was saying look these are the sorts of secrets I have and if you’ll risk the fallout they can be yours and russia’s former kgb intelligence colonel smartly answered. Why is it hard to believe he’s already given all those secrets away to the fsb when the moment he left he was dangling a carrot in front of both of their noses with helpful info they didn’t have to ask for. Mind you documents Completely unrelated to our 4th amendment rights documents he would’ve took to begin with. You can’t really believe he took all that to

  7. immediately destroy them. Get F’N real he is Not a true whistle blower. He’s a Traitor who’s committed the worst and most costly theft of dangerous classified intelligence in this nations history who ran to a russia under the head a kgb intelligence conservative cold warrior. A traitor who gleefully participates in propaganda to embarrass his country. A traitor who literally lets our enemies no our methods and techniques of hunting them with our allies. If this were vietnam, korea, ww2 or 1 he’d have Immediately been called out for the traitor he was for deliberately revealing such things to our enemies during an ongoing war. A traitor who has no problems manipulating the publics passion for our constitutional to deflect away from his ridiculous theft and betrayal. He IS NOT A Patriot. I could list a million Facts and reasons, but to his supporters he’s a messiah they’ve been waitin 4 somebody to stick it to the government. Traitors r cool long as they embarrass big brother.