All Commentary
Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Character of Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden, who at the age of 29 is living in sanctuary in Russia, is the overnight sensation who leaked details about the National Security Administration’s (NSA) practice of massive and sweeping surveillance of Americans’ browsing habits. He has also provided a model of what it means to live a principled life, even when it comes at personal expense. 

What his leak revealed is truly chilling and even infuriating. He demonstrated that websites and cell phone companies are sharing their databases with the U.S. government in real time—without so much as court orders—and thereby making every one of us a victim of snooping and possibly vulnerable to blackmail for so long as we shall live.

Much more important for any lover of freedom, however, is the manner in which he went about his defiance. He acted peacefully, openly, with total dedication to principle. He took responsibility for speaking the truth. He did it with a clean conscience. He has been willing to face the consequences for his actions.

It will take millions more like him to give freedom a fighting chance in an age of Leviathan State control.

In his life, he had seen enough to make him crippled with fear. But he rejected fear and took a different route. He used the very technologies that he knew to be compromised by government invasion and surveillance in order to speak truth to power. His actions reveal a path forward for the whole cause of human freedom—using every opportunity to act on the courage of our convictions.

By now, everyone knows the story of Edward’s life, just as millions have already seen his interview following his disclosures. Edward was born in 1983 and raised in North Carolina. His enrollment in a community college made up for his poor high school education and allowed him to earn a general education degree.

He signed up with the Army—he hoped to liberate people in Iraq, but was shocked to find that this wasn’t really the goal—and was discharged following leg injuries. He went to work as a security guard for an NSA security facility in Maryland, where he must have revealed his competence in information technology and code. (In some ways, he is an archetype of today’s self-taught but indispensable code “geeks.”)

Soon after that he was snapped up by the talent-hungry CIA. By 2007 he found himself in Geneva, maintaining computer security for the agency. Two years later he was working for the NSA in Japan—the very definition of upward mobility.

Then earlier this year, he landed the dream job. He began working for Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii. This is a private company that collects, analyzes, and disseminates data for the NSA, enjoying billions in contracts from the government. Edward himself was only 29 years old, but he was pulling in $200,000 in a cushy job in a dreamland, living with his girlfriend. In Hawaii!

To appreciate what he has done, you have to put yourself in his position. Would you give that up? Would you be willing to walk away? He was surrounded by people who just took it for granted that every American deserves to be spied on, that government has the full right to everyone’s information.

This was the culture of his firm. The people paying him to manage computer networks all accepted the premise that all this stuff about freedom and democracy, court orders and the Bill of Rights, was just a veneer—just the silly doctrines of the civic religion that we tell our children but don’t really believe. Their real job at Booz was to collect as much information as possible and let the government use it as it sees fit.

Most people in that position would say nothing. Maybe they would even feel a sense of power at being able to wiretap anyone or dig through the email archives of anyone. The financial incentive alone would be enough to keep him quiet. Why risk such a happy life as this? He could have stayed there forever. Most everyone would have done exactly this.

Instead, his well-formed conscience intervened. One day, he and his girlfriend gathered up their things and left. He told his superiors that he was going to get treated for epilepsy. Instead, he flew to Hong Kong and lived in a hotel room. He called up journalist Glenn Greenwald (a man he knew he could trust) and gave him the documents that are rocking the world today.

That’s when the witch-hunt for the leaker began. Official Washington swore vengeance.

But Edward wasn’t finished. Rather than remain in hiding, he took the opposite path. He granted an on-camera interview in which he revealed everything there was to know about him. He put himself on the line, with confidence and grace.

He said:

I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what’s happening and goes, “This is something that’s not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.”

After the leaks, his former employer denounced him and his “shocking” actions, saying that his revelations are “a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm.” The partisans of the national security state called him evil and Congressman called for his extradition and prosecution. 

He had already anticipated this. He knew the risks. He figures he will never go home again. He is now seeking asylum in Iceland, a fact that should give every American pause. 

Here is the statement I find so incredible, so compelling, so absolutely on point. He explains why he chose to be a whistleblower rather than continue to live a comfortable but morally compromised life:

You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk because they’re such powerful adversaries. No one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they’ll get you in time. But at the same time you have to make a determination about what it is that’s important to you. 
And if living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept—and I think many of us are, it’s the human nature—you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large paycheck for relatively little work, against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows. (emphasis added)

Millions of people do just this. They choose to live unfreely—but comfortably. It is the habit of nearly everyone—especially in times when the leviathan State is so imposing and threatening—to put up with the immorality and evil around them, to look the other way in the face of fraud and wickedness, to help cover up the unethical deceptions and lies, to pretend like the plunder and surveillance and invasions are just no big deal, rather than come forward. 

To choose the security of the known evil—no matter how pressing that evil is, so long as that evil is your personal benefactor—rather than take the risk that comes with improving the world is the pattern and habit of our day. Millions do it. Millions in government. Millions in the private sector. And that is precisely why so much of the world is on its present course.

To break away from that requires something special, something spectacular, something singular in our times. So why take this extraordinary step? As Edward told Greenwald in his interview, it’s because someone has to act in his generation or it will be worse in the next one. The “architecture of oppression” must be exposed now as a way of making the world a better place in the future.

And so he acted. He used technology to speak directly to the whole human family. He bypassed the gatekeepers completely and put to use the technological marvels of our time to make a difference. 

He could have done otherwise. He could have sat by, just as tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, do every day. After all, his company employs 25,000 people, most of whom were in a position to do the same thing. But they did not. He did. 

What makes the difference? What made him act? He decided not to be part of the system. He decided that he would not live an unprincipled life. He would not be unfree. He would choose truth, and this truth would set him free. 

Too often we think of our freedom as something that is either granted or taken away from us by government. This is partially but not completely true. There are ways in our lives that we can choose—right where we are—to embrace or reject freedom. All of us, but especially those who work for government or government contractors, are often faced with the choice of accepting a comfortable lie or taking the risk to live the more difficult truth. 

As Snowden seems intuitively to understand, the “architecture of oppression” relies most fundamentally on our own cooperation and complacency. Withdrawing our consent, and doing so with integrity and openness, is probably the single most powerful blow any of us can ever strike for the cause of human freedom and the well-being of future generations.