John P. Calvert, Fargo, Published December 28 2013
Letter: The leakers cheapen their causeEvery president’s worst fear is that of being roused at 3 a.m. to learn that some horrific act of war or terrorism is in progress. So while they are charged with balancing liberty and national security, leaders will err, if err they must, on the side of security; and executive organizations like the National Security Agency will reflect this bias in ways that threaten personal freedoms.
The NSA data leaked by Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and Julian Assange reveal locations of nuclear sites, names of intelligence operatives, and the surveillance of allies, businesses and even charities. But most jarring are the accounts of the NSA’s massive stores of data and its Orwellian potential for spying on its own citizens. Currently, the NSA tracks every phone call made in America.
Governments seldom volunteer their misdeeds, and internal checks on spying are weak. So what should we make of those who presume to break oaths and laws in order to expose government secrets? Are they heroes or traitors?
When Socrates was tried for impiety, he acknowledged the majesty of law (if not of every law) by defending himself before a jury and then accepting its sentence of death. When Henry David Thoreau refused to pay taxes for purposes he deemed unworthy, he submitted to arrest and jail. When M.K. Gandhi, an admirer of Thoreau, defied colonial rules, he marched to the magistrate’s office and requested the maximum penalty. Martin Luther King, a disciple of Gandhi, likewise manned up and went to jail as a statement against unjust racial laws.
And when Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, he did so believing that the war policies pursued by a succession of presidents were unconstitutional and had to be stopped. He,too, made no attempt at evasion. Each man knew that the willingness to accept responsibility is what separates the civil disobedient from the common criminal.
The NSA leakers, however, have ignored this tradition. Manning resolved his law-breaking with a plea bargain. Assange and Snowden fled, respectively, to Ecuadorean and Russian territory – hardly symbols of the openness they claim to champion. Snowden is currently blackmailing the government with threats to release a “doomsday cache” of more secrets unless he receives amnesty.
What inspired these three? Critics and supporters alike commonly describe them as narcissists, self-promoters and paranoiacs. Writer Heather Brooke calls Assange a “predatory narcissistic fantasist” whose arrogance and “pretentions of infallibility” have alienated his own colleagues. She quotes his arrogant sense of self-importance: “I am the heart and soul of (Wikileaks), its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all the rest.”
The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin describes Snowden as a “grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” And even Manning’s defense psychologist found him narcissistic and lacking in empathy, as well as sexually confused. Acquaintances described him as a misfit in both school and military life, and as “permanently frustrated with the world.”
An act’s legitimacy will be judged in part by its perceived motivation. If it seems inspired by neurosis or grandstanding, then the act, however valuable its social effects may be, will seem more like an egotistical prank than an act of patriotism. So while the leakers have – we may hope – sparked a long-needed debate over governmental hubris and the proper scope of federal surveillance, they have also cheapened their cause by ducking the consequences. Had they manfully accepted them, their statement about government abuses would have resonated far more powerfully.
President Barack Obama says that snooping on citizens is only temporary. But so long as unhappy people have access to technology, governments will always have to watch for terrorists; and just so, citizens will have to watch their governments, sometimes to the point of breaking their laws. And when such law-breaking is required, it should be undertaken by a better class of people.
Meantime, the leaks have already yielded one interesting result, which is that some progressives are beginning to ask whether their core political faith – a faith in the benevolence of the ubiquitous State – is really warranted.
Calvert, a former college teacher, is a contributor to The Forum’s Opinion and Commentary pages. Email firstname.lastname@example.org