Thank You Mr. Snowden, Also You Are a Coward and a Scoundrel

Conor Friedersdorf is calling out a particular kind of illogic in his recent post on “Privacy Moderates.” Specifically, he cites those who think both that the current surveillance regime needs to be altered and that Edward Snowden acted wrongly, as being not just hypocritical but incoherent.

“What if I told you that the surveillance state goes too far in secretly spying on innocent Americans — but that Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who exposed the scope of data collection, and Glenn Greenwald, the recipient of his leaks, shouldn’t be regarded as exalted heroes?

That sort of non sequitur isn’t my style. But if I wrote such a sentence in earnest, you’d know to identify me as a ‘privacy moderate.'”

To make his point concrete, Conor uses something James Traub of Foreign Policy wrote recently as an example. Traub’s position as a moderate is established once he claims that while the U.S. government has abused its power, advocates like Glenn Greenwald, and those individuals praising Edward Snowden, go too far in both overstating the dangers posed by the government’s surveillance regime and just how much of it they propose to abolish. The government is wrong, but so are those most vocal in their criticism of it. Not a particularly well argued claim on Traub’s part, but not necessarily a preposterous one either.

But what Conor is trying to take issue with, at least as I read him, is the begrudging willingness of many who hold a position similar to Traub’s to admit that something is rotten in the state of Denmark even while they refuse to credit Snowden for allowing these abuses to come to light, making it possible for the rest of us to debate them publicly.

Per Conor, “Privacy moderates are obsessed with policing the objections for hyperbole.” As has been the practice in almost every genre of policy debate, the very serious people value the art of being measured above all else. As a result, they spend as much time if not more chiding those with whom they are otherwise in general agreement for being too extreme and unruly.

Yes, we need more stimulus spending, but do stop calling this the death of the middle class! No, we don’t have complete proof that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and is allied with Al-Qaeda, but seriously now look at all those fools waving around Hitler-mustached pictures of G. W. Bush! Yes, the government is doing some bad stuff in secret and lying to us about it, but would the rest of you idiots stop freaking out and self-righteously praising Snowden! He’s a high school drop out after all who couldn’t even properly find asylum from the government who wants to unduly prosecute him–the very opposite of a very measured, very serious person!

Reading the same post, Zack Beauchamp claimed the following,

conor 1

Now this I readily grant. But the post in question looks at two things, even though the transition between them is admittedly clumsy (if it exists at all).

First, Conor is arguing that there is an irrational desire on the part of some to police the hyperbole of those who criticize the government when it comes to surveillance, privacy, and civil liberties in general. Second, he’s arguing that on the basis of this, that, and the other, it’s dumb to think that, to the extent the government has committed abuses, these abuses can be amended or prevented in the future by moderately seeking redress for them. While Conor deals mostly with the latter, I want to address the former in more detail.

The amount of evidence pointing out this cognitive dissonance really is staggering.

  • In a debate with Chris Hedges, Geoffrey Stone admits that he finds some of the things the government was revealed to be doing troubling and in need of reform and further scrutiny, but is also unconvinced that Snowden’s actions were part of a conscientious objection to an unjust law rather than the criminal acts of a rogue “techie.”
  • Jenna Karvunidis thinks what Snoweden did was valuable but doesn’t understand how he can be a “hero” for leaking documents he was paid to protect and then fleeing to rogue states like China.
  • John Aravosis was seemingly cool with Snowden leaking about Verizon handing over metadata to the NSA, but now thinks he’s a menace after leaking documents about how the U.S. and its allies spy on other countries’ heads of state and citizens.
  • According to several members of Congress, Snowden did the country a favor but shouldn’t be praised for having done so.
  • Jonathan Capehart gives Snowden credit for helping the public to have a “conversation” about how the government spies on it, but is concerned about saying anything nicer than that.
  • Michael Moynihan believes the information Snowden leaked raises “ethical and moral issues that demand further public debate,” though he cautions anyone about praising Snowden’s actions before more information becomes available.
  • Sen. Mike Lee co-introduced legislation to “declassify significant portions of secret court rulings that authorized both programs” because where “sensitive decisions” regarding citizen’s civil liberties are concerned, “we should demand no less.” He also thinks what Snowden did was problematic though, and that the young man is delusional.
  • Jay Carney notes that it’s important to have a (presumably informed) debate about the surveillance state only made possible by Snowden’s actions, but also that what Snowden did was a serious problem.
  • Per Jeffrey Toobin, hopes that some good comes of the leaks, but either way Snowden is a monster.
  • Bob Schieffer thinks that we need to find out what exactly the government is up to, but also that Snowden’s actions were wrong and potentially (he seems to imply) threaten another 9/11-style attack.
  • Josh Marshall is glad Snowden triggered a debate, even if he goes on to condemn him for betraying his country and fellow citizens.
  • Thomas Friedman is glad to “live in a country with people who are vigilant in defending civil liberties,” and listening “to the debate about the disclosure of two government programs designed to track suspected phone and e-mail contacts of terrorists,” and worried “about potential government abuse of privacy,” but doesn’t think Snowden should be applauded for his whistle-blowing because he thinks the trade-offs are worth it–the ones he is now able to judge for himself due to Snowden’s whistle-blowing.
  • Then there’s the MSNBC crowd, that great liberal bastion of free thinking and principled discourse. Richard Wolffe thinks the country needs to have a substantive debate about NSA surveillance, but also that Snowden is to blame for any lack of oneEd Schultz wants to find the right balance that preserves privacy, but also thinks Snowden is a “punk.” Melissa Harris-Perry thinks the questions necessarily raised by Snowden’s leaks are important, and worthy of discussing on her show, but also extremely blameworthy (hat/tip Jeff Cohen).

Dig deeper into the Google search results and you’ll find plenty more examples. They more or less all boil down to: “We want to have this debate. We NEED to have this debate. Given this information I can now make a more informed judgement about what my government is doing and whether I approve and/or think it’s the best course of action. Also, the guy who made that happen is possibly dishonest, probably a traitor, most definitely a coward, and made the world a worse place by doing so.

Beauchamp made a further claim that I want to just note in passing,

conor 2

This is important because it’s related to the incoherence mentioned at the beginning of Conor’s post. It’s one think to argue, as Traub mostly does, that the problem with the NSA et al is one not of kind, but of degree. It’s another to argue that X is bad, but how we found out about X is worse, and so a world in which we never found out about X would be better even though X would persist. It might seem like this is a tenable position on the surface, but because its validity necessarily depends on knowing what X is in order to judge which is worse, I don’t see how it can be.

What if X had been much worse–say a secret prison, one much like Guantanamo except the public wasn’t aware of it. Someone working for a contractor employed to do cyber security for the facility decides to leak its existence and the identity of those imprisoned there.  Some say the facility, legal or not, represents a gross overreach on the part of the government, while others maintain that, while they think it needs to be shut down, it’s not like the government’s murdering people and besides, the potential threat to national security from leaks of this sort far outweighs whatever abuses can now be corrected–a determination they can only make because of the leak.

This is the case for transparency.

As Josh Marshall explained early on,

“And the public definitely has an interest in knowing just how we’re using surveillance technology and how we’re balancing risks versus privacy. The best critique of my whole position that I can think of is that I think debating the way we balance privacy and security is a good thing and I’m saying I’m against what is arguably the best way to trigger one of those debates.”

Via Memorandum, Digby doesn’t think it’s tenable either, and suggests this helpful explanation from Chris Hayes.

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39 thoughts on “Thank You Mr. Snowden, Also You Are a Coward and a Scoundrel

  1. “What if I told you that the surveillance state goes too far in secretly spying on innocent Americans — but that Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who exposed the scope of data collection, and Glenn Greenwald, the recipient of his leaks, shouldn’t be regarded as exalted heroes?

    Eh, so he means, what if I told you my position is exactly the same as the majority of Americans'”? That’s some impressive opinionating there, that is. I wonder if he also likes sliced bread, but thinks wheat is healthier than white?

    Good post, Ethan. I’m always good on some fierce skepticism and watchdogging on government. This is especially true when their stated justification is national security, because while that sounds really vital–and in its real essence is–that very importance makes it a useful cover story for things that aren’t so vital. Ultimately “national security” becomes just another example of Samuel Johnson’s aphorism that “politics is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

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  2. It’s a good point by you and by Conor. Moderation is one thing. Recognizing that the extent of government surveillance is a serious problem, and something we need to address, and at the same time condemning a person for making us aware of it, is incoherent. If not for Snowden’s actions, we would not be able to be HAVING this debate about US government surveillance and spying, because we would not know about it.

    If it’s worthwhile that we’re having this debate, and if it’s good that the public of the US and other allied countries are aware that the US government is spying on them against their will – then it was right of Snowden to release the information.

    I’m not aware of any information Snowden has yet released that compromises the security of the United States in a way that outweighs the positive good of defending people’s privacy. He’s not revealing specific intel operations on terrorist groups, or anything like that; he’s revealing extremely broad-based spying efforts targeted en masse against regular citizens and allied nations, which are things people ought to be aware of.

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    • If not for Snowden’s actions, we would not be able to be HAVING this debate about US government surveillance and spying, because we would not know about it.

      This part bothers me (see my previous post on Snowden) because we already knew about it. All of the relevant pieces of information necessary to know that the U.S. was engaging in broad, domain-wide data collection were already available, and well known, for almost a decade now. We should not need a smoking gun of malfeasance to discuss the negative implications of policy.

      The frustrating part to guys like me are that it takes this event for people to actually start talking about it. We should have been talking about this in 2002.

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      • There were a handful of cases that made it all the way to the Supreme Court, though. These cases were dismissed for lack of standing (that is, the folks couldn’t prove that they were being listened to, therefore they didn’t have standing to bring forward the case).

        Now they have proof that they have standing.

        And we can then see the Supreme Court rule one way or the other… and if it’s the other, we can have it explained to us that “Ginsburg has made her decision; now let her enforce it.”

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        • We need a non-stupid Supreme Court ruling, and if they won’t do it we need a constitutional amendment, to create the principle: If someone sues in court saying the government is doing something to them in secret, the government _must_ admit to them whether or not they’re doing that.

          The entire premise of ‘secretly’ wiretapping people and whatnot is ‘so they don’t know they’re being watched’, which means it’s complete nonsense the government can refuse to tell people _who have already figured it out and sued them over it_.

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      • The frustrating part to guys like me are that it takes this event for people to actually start talking about it. We should have been talking about this in 2002.

        We did talk about it in 2002. The country as a whole had a collective freakout about it when it was invented in 2002, when it was called ‘Total Information Awareness’, and we suspended that program in 2003. So the NSA just did it in secret instead.

        Saying we ‘should have talked about it’ is silly. We did, we decided against it, and then the fucking government did it anyway.

        The real question is why the fuck do we allow the government to operate any programs at all without our knowledge?

        There should be no secret programs, and no secret laws, and no secret interpretations of the law. Period. (Secret _actions_, fine, although almost all of those should be immediately declassified when finished.)

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  3. Couple of things here:

    First, all of this ‘Snowden is a traitor’ strikes me (continually,) as shooting the messenger. It turns the debate into a debate about Snowden, instead of a debate about privacy.

    Second, the extreme positions are necessary in the negotiation to any sort of moderate position, and that’s the case in most political debates. And privacy is going to become a bigger and bigger debate as we find just how much information exists about us out there.

    Third, I still think any discussion of privacy that pertains to the government and how it must act is too limited. Privacy should belong to individuals; and the rights of individual privacy should be respected by both the government and corporations.

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    • Ahh, but people feel free to blow whistles about governments.
      Blowing whistles about corporate malfeasance on the privacy front…
      is inadvisable (not the least of which is that knowing that a corp
      isn’t protecting your security, is akin to waving a red flag saying
      “I could hack this right now!”)

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    • On point two, this was at the heart of the concern trolling over Rand Paul’s filibuster. Yes, some thought that, because many of his other opinions and positions are so toxic, any screed from Paul against targeted lethal strikes was to be ignored.

      But many more were moderate in their approach, not attacking the messenger directly, but noting how silly the hypotheticals he was using were. Lethal strikes might need to be reigned in, but Paul is clearly an idiot if he thinks the government is going to blow people up at American cafes.

      Except that ridiculous hypotheticals like this were exactly the kind of rhetorical framing necessary to force the admin into actually addressing some of the questions civil liberties advocates had been asking for years. You need to force the government into showing us that they aren’t doing X, don’t think they can legally do X, or why X wouldn’t be a bad thing, and the only way to do that is to start on the other end of the spectrum (of what’s thinkable) and force them to walk the discussion back.

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          • Not terribly. You sit down, figure out where everyone’s priorities are (mindreading helps, in this case), then flesh out a deal which gives everyone what they “absolutely must have”, and gives a decent bargain on the details.

            The key to making a deal is in knowing what folks “don’t push me” buttons are.

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            • Not terribly. You sit down, figure out where everyone’s priorities are…The key to making a deal is in knowing what folks “don’t push me” buttons are.

              Which is the point where I bluff you about my priorities and push me buttons. And believe me, I can be a pretty good bluffer when I want to be. I’ve got an “angry voice” that I can trot out at will, and that people find perfectly convincing–so convincing that on occasion I’ve been unable to persuade folks that I wasn’t really angry, just method acting. So I’ll happily let you lay out your priorities, then I’ll bluff about mine, and we’ll compromise on my side of the line. As well, there are times I’ve walked away wondering if I was bluffed, but sufficiently persuaded of the truth of the other person’s position that I dare not push any farther.

              So, absent the mindreading, you’re just empirically wrong about this not being terribly difficult. Unless you’re helping two terribly naive or self-sacrificing individuals come to a bargain. In other words, only outside the political arena we’re discussing here.

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              • It’s generally easier when you’re dealing with businesses, yes. Because it’s reasonably easy to analyze what will make a business go out of business (and, if you find a plan that makes them more profitable, while letting you make out like a bandit, you just present the plan).

                The awkward part of political negotiations is that your actors, and who they represent, are quite different entities.

                That said, when corporations get serious, I believe you’ll find they tend to make negotiations with political entities very sharp and one-sided. That nasty business with Spitzer, to take a relatively recent example.

                Bluffing doesn’t work well against someone trained to see through bluffs. Negotiating, like anything else, is a skillset.

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        • Cletus, you are anything but a slack-jawed yokel.

          I’m continually amused at how your gravatar sets me to implicitly expecting inane comments from you, only to be startled again and again by your lack of inanity. One of these days I’ll learn, and my implicit expectation will be closer to what you deserve.

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  4. If we are allowed to look at the argument and then look at the person making the argument and then use our opinion of the person to color our opinion of the argument, why shouldn’t we look at that list and say “each and every single one of these people would have a different (and even less moderate) position if Dubya was in office”?

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    • That’s pretty much the only thing I miss about the Bush Administration. Evil was much more apparent and visible then. Now it hinds behind the cloak of courtesy and moderation and diplomacy so that ‘respectable people’ think it isn’t there any more. Which makes it all the harder to fight.

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  5. I’d be a lot more sympathetic to the views of Beauchamp, et al, if they provided a realistic explanation of how, exactly, we would have been able to find out about this without someone like Snowden doing exactly what he did.

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  6. “Gentlemen do not read each others’ mail!” harrumphed Henry Stimpson in his memoirs. Back in 1929, Stimson ostentatiously shut down the Black Chamber, the precursor to the NSA, the decryption operation which had been reading everyone’s diplomatic telegrams.

    By 1941, Stimson was singing a different tune.

    The USA has spied on everyone, friend and foe alike, since General Washington. It hasn’t always spied on its own citizens with the thoroughness Snowden exposes but it’s never been a good situation. Those who go to FISA courts routinely get what they want. It’s all a sham. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. A secret court is just a Star Chamber, it can never be anything else.

    Snowden didn’t tell anyone anything we didn’t already surmise was true anyway. He just provided more proof. Nations have no friends and allies are only temporary. Even friends do not share the entire list of their friends and even enemies will cooperate in the face of a shared threat. The ever-morphing Venn Diagram of trust in the real world looks more like a kaleidoscope. Really, folks, no two nations ever trust each other. Everyone’s got secrets, even from those they love the most. A person without secrets is a person without a personality.

    Hyperbole isn’t the problem. Hyperbole is just an irritating rush to conclusions in most cases. Fact is, as the Chinese peasant said of his anarchic plight, accosted by bandits, far from the rule of law: “Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away.” The late Manchu era in China was plagued by thousands of such bandits. Out of sight, out of mind, the bureaucrat and the bandits’ doings are all the same when they are done in the dark.

    Governments cannot be trusted to act in any way other than their own best interests. Sometimes the government’s interests align with our own, often they don’t. Most of what’s classified and squirrelled away in the Deep Dark Holes isn’t of any vital national value: within a vanishingly small percentage it’s all fuckups. Just like your fuckups, my own fuckups, we don’t forget them and often we keep records. But we don’t want anyone else to find out. Hobbes’ Leviathan: The secret thoughts of a man run over all things, holy, prophane, clean, obscene, grave, and light, without shame, or blame

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  7. ““What if I told you that the surveillance state goes too far in secretly spying on innocent Americans — but that Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who exposed the scope of data collection, and Glenn Greenwald, the recipient of his leaks, shouldn’t be regarded as exalted heroes?”

    What if I told you that pedophiles were criminals, but that dragging accused pedophiles out of their houses and lynching them from the nearest tree shouldn’t be regarded as justice?

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  8. On the one hand one can argue that the individual revelation countering James Clapper’s testimony on collecting information on millions of Americans is an important bit of knowledge. For the sake of argument, classify that as whistleblowing.

    On the other hand, the information that, as of at least 2007, the US had a bug in the EU’s Cryptofax in Washington DC, well, why exactly did the general public need to know that? Also, the leading signals intelligence agency of the US is knee deep in operations against China (and the NSA’s 75% success rate in Hong Kong) Snowden revealed to the South China Morning Post, again did that bit of information need to be revealed? Thirty eight embassies and missions monitored, listing some specific targets, also necessary for conducting a discussion of surveillance and privacy of the general public?

    In my view, the standard being, in order to break the oath to keep the secrets of the United States (a) you need to have unsuccessfully taken the legitimate paths of reporting misconduct (took me all of thirty seconds of googling to find out how to properly report top secret level abuses); (b) you need to reveal misconduct not run-of-the-mill spying the agency in question was set up to do; (c) civil disobedience, under some theories of conscientious objection, also means facing the sanctions for the offense – on a related note, taking laptops full of sensitive information to China and Russia, when is that ever the wise – praiseworthy even! – course of action?

    To the extent Snowden trespasses against these boundaries he’s wrong and it isn’t “incoherent” for the so-called privacy moderates to say so.

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      • Pointing out both is worth our time. The agenda and actions of the government officials is worthy our scrutiny, and so are the agenda and actions of the leaker. So both Snowden’s conduct and the conduct of the US government are certainly worthy of assessment. The emphasis is up to the judgment of the individual commentator. If they want to provide further context, Snowden’s motivations and decisions, they are well within reason to do so. The leaker’s conduct is part of the story.

        As to who is more wrong, I suppose part of the answer depends on who got their hands on what and how accurate NSA claims about minimization are.

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  9. What if X had been much worse–say a secret prison, one much like Guantanamo except the public wasn’t aware of it. Someone working for a contractor employed to do cyber security for the facility decides to leak its existence and the identity of those imprisoned there. Some say the facility, legal or not, represents a gross overreach on the part of the government, while others maintain that, while they think it needs to be shut down, it’s not like the government’s murdering people and besides, the potential threat to national security from leaks of this sort far outweighs whatever abuses can now be corrected–a determination they can only make because of the leak.

    This is the case for transparency.

    Does this not justify the leaking of any kind of classified information? Let’s pull the analogy in the opposite direction and have X be some really minor transgression, like the government went a bit over-budget on some classified project. And along with X, Snowden also released a bunch of other classified info on methods & strategies that – while entirely legal – puts a lot of people in the field at risk. Is it still wrong for someone to say, “Yeah going over budget is bad but releasing all that other information is worse” just because that determination can only be made because of the leak?

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    • …Or even set aside whether there’s harm. Is there, certeris paribus, any moral duty incumbent those who took an oath to and are (voluntarily) legally coerced to keep the government’s secrets, to actually keep them even if they don’t agree with the government’s reasons for wanting to keep them secret, or think the public good is better served by revealing them? Is the principle we want everyone in the government who is entrusted with classified information to follow that they should simply do a personal reflection on whether they think any given piece of information is better kept secret or better made public, and simply act accordingly, or do we think that a government prerogative to keep some things secret at its discretion at the highest levels should actually do some work on all such public servants’ balance of moral obligations? And if the latter, then what is the measure whether a particular case where the fact that a servant assesses that leaking something classified better serves the public interest is so significant that it does override whatever work to the admonition to generally keep secrets even when one disagrees with the decision to keep the secret?

      A side question that is of interest to me: are public servants ever at liberty to just do one or the other, trying to make the “best” decision, or are they simply always under a solemn moral obligation to disclose whenever the government is wrong in its assessment of whether to keep a secret, and to keep the secret when it is right? If public servants always followed their moral obligation in a world where the latter is true, what would that world look like as a practical matter?

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      • I believe the official argument is that you can legally not follow *ANY* unlawful order.

        Here’s the oath:
        I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

        Now… would you say that someone who is blatantly violating the Constitution counts as a domestic enemy?

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        • I’m not actually sure whether employees of Booz Allen take that oath, and I think (though am not sure) that NSA employees take both that oath and another oath relating to keeping secrets (as ell as signing agreements to do so, and otherwise being bound by law to do so). But your point is taken. In the case of lawbreaking, it the case for compulsory release is certainly stronger.

          In the case of Snowden, I grant that it’s arguable that he was exposing unlawful activity (though that does require us to credit that he ought to decide his view of that trumps the findings of a judicial panel charged with the responsibility of making that determination, and it also raises the question whether we prefer our security professionals to leak these matters, or whether we wouldn’t just rather our representatives, like Ron Wyden, who have access to the same legal findings, do so, as they are not charged with carrying out the immediate tasks of safeguarding our security. YMMV.) But I was (expressly) asking after the more general argument. If your response is, “Always keep the secret unless you see actual lawbreaking,” fair enough. But I was asking after views that hold that servants are justified/obligated to disclose classified information even in other circumstances where a servant thinks it’s more in the public interest to do so than not to. What are the parameters and limitations of that viewpoint (which you my not hold)? Am I imagining that it exists? I don’t think so. For example, I am not aware that Daniel Ellsburg thought he was justified because the Pentagon Papers revealed lawbreaking, but rather because he just thought the American public deserved to know about the government’s account of the process that led to such intractable involvement in Viet Nam. And people to this day insist that he was right to leak those documents. (That their primary author, Leslie Gelb, believes they shouldn’t have been or at least remained classified isn’t sufficient to answer that question, though it’s certainly arguably relevant.)

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        • Snowden has argued that he does not believe the US government should be using covert surveillance against foreign citizens, which explains his release of classified information on foreign embassies and missions (as detailed by Creon, above). This view is not grounded in defending the Constitution but in a personal ethic, and therefore any of those leaks – regardless of how well-intentioned – are in violation of the oath.

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  10. In this thread the point is made and it is regretted that discussion of the personality of Snowden and the justification for his actions has come to displace needed debate about the actions of the government that he made information about public. That seems to be a common point made by those who are ostensibly eager to have that debate, and reasonably so. And, as was pointed out, it’s likewise not surprising that people who are less eager to have the policy debate don’t mind that the subject stay on Snowden, his history, whereabouts, and the rightfulness of his actions.

    It’s curious, then, that no one on any side of either issue seems particularly interested in limiting what they have to say about the matter in a way that will actually promote one discussion getting the most oxygen (or CO2 as the case may be) and the other being a side-discussion.

    If you want to talk about the reasons and propriety of Snowden actions, that’s fine, but you can’t then go on to complain when others’ entries into that discussion crowd out debate about the policies he made classified information about public. If you really want to debate the policy and not the man, then when others look to debate the man, you will say, “Look, my view differs, but we should set that aside and have the debate the policy like you say you want to [since, as this post rightly points out, so many of those who don’t support Snowden’s actions nevertheless claim to “welcome the debate.].”

    Nearly everyone is saying they want one thing here, and, with the course of action to more likely get it readily available to them, electing to do something else entirely. It’s almost like, I dunno, everyone’s more interested in the whistleblowing question and the intriguing figure of Edward Snowden than in policy and legal questions surrounding the activities he brought us classified information about.

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