Edward Snowden in Hong Kong

I'm glad we have this information; I am sorry we are getting it from Hong Kong.
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Three points:


1) I believe what I wrote two days ago: that the United States and the world have gained much more, in democratic accountability, than they have lost in any way with the revelation of these various NSA monitoring programs. That these programs are legal -- unlike the Nixon "Plumbers" operation, unlike various CIA assassination programs, unlike other objects of whistle-blower revelations over the years -- is the most important fact about them. They're being carried out in "our" name, ours as Americans, even though most of us have had no idea of what they entailed. The debate on the limits of the security-state is long overdue, and Edward Snowden has played an important role in hastening its onset.

2) Among the strongest arguments against a surveillance state is that it depends on the subjective judgment of its millions of employees (a) to be applied without over-reach or abuse, or (b) to exist at all. One 29-year-old has just demonstrated the second point. Edward Snowden didn't like the way the system worked, and so he has effectively blown it up. The bigger problem may be with the first point, option (a) -- people who think there should be more intrusiveness  or prying. The Founders' fundamental concern, often distilled as "If men were angels...", was to avoid giving anyone powers that, in the wrong hands, could be abused. The surveillance state is giving too many people too much power -- either to destroy its workings, as Snowden has tried to do, or to abuse and extend them.

3) I am sorry that Snowden chose Hong Kong as his point of refuge. To be clear: I love Hong Kong. My own brother lived there for many years; I like everything about its verve of life and energy; I admire the determination of its press, judicial institutions, and civil society to maintain their independence after the transfer from British control to that of the People's Republic of China. As shown by these amazing headlines last week in the South China Morning Post (sent by a friend) on the 24th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square crackdown:

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And:

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But here is the reality. Hong Kong is not a sovereign country. It is part of China -- a country that by the libertarian standards Edward Snowden says he cares about is worse, not better, than the United States. China has even more surveillance of its citizens (it has gone very far toward ensuring that it knows the real identity of everyone using the internet); its press is thoroughly government-controlled; it has no legal theory of protection for free speech; and it doesn't even have national elections. Hong Kong lives a time-limited separate existence, under the "one country, two systems" principle, but in a pinch, it is part of China

I don't know all the choices Snowden had about his place of refuge. Maybe he thought this was his only real option. But if Snowden thinks, as some of his comments seem to suggest, that he has found a bastion of freer speech, then he is ill-informed; and if he knowingly chose to make his case from China he is playing a more complicated game.

And one more point: I have friends who work at Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden's employer at the time he (apparently) decided to leak the PRISM info. I am sure they disagree with my claim that the leaks have done more good than harm. I am sorry for the damage to their firm, which is another reminder of the danger and folly of creating systems that can be upended by one dissenting voice.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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