What Type of American Would You Trust to Work at the NSA?

If you think of them as people, rather than abstractions, you're more likely to conclude, "no one."
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As yet, Edward Snowden is a stranger -- perhaps not to Glenn Greenwald, who has interacted with him enough to form preliminary judgments about his character, but certainly to the rest of us. All the attempts to describe him, favorably or unfavorably, are based on incomplete information. For that reason, David Brooks's attempt to understand his type should be read with skepticism. But let us imagine that the column does present an accurate sketch of the young man.

Brooks writes:

Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments. If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world.

Brooks has deep misgivings about this type. So I'd ask him to ponder this question: If you build a surveillance state as big as the one we're building, who do you expect is going to staff it? Are the tech-savvy surveillance analysts earning $122,000-$200,000 per year going to be family types who help organize the neighborhood street fair, coach Little League, and go to church every Sunday? Or are they more likely to be unmarried, with no local attachments, friends scattered across cities in blue America and Europe, and more interest in travel and food than school districts and Heaven?

Now, I don't particularly mistrust the Booz Allen type -- some of my best friends are rootless consultants! -- nor do I trust any type of American to run a surveillance state. But if Brooks, and others like him, don't trust people like the version of Snowden sketched in this hypothetical, then they ought to oppose a surveillance state that vests those people with extreme power. Some will say, you've got it all wrong: It's actually [fill-in-the-blank] other kind of person who typically staffs the surveillance state. (Tim Lee's post describes a type that is perhaps closer to typical, and overlaps with Brooks). I defy anyone to describe any type that a majority of Americans will trust. Hey Red America, do you trust the coastal elites with your private information? Hey Blue America, do you trust young Republicans to sift through your metadata? Support for what the NSA does depends on regarding their employees as abstractions. Americans know there's no type of human that should be trusted with that kind of power. They just forget it's humans we're trusting, not some disembodied stand-in for America itself in a cubicle.

No offense, NSA types -- I'm sure you wouldn't trust a journalist like me with your metadata either!

****

A bit later in his column, Brooks criticizes Snowden in a way that I'd like to challenge. He writes:
Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good. This is not a danger Snowden is addressing. In fact, he is making everything worse. For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.

He betrayed honesty and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity. He made explicit and implicit oaths to respect the secrecy of the information with which he was entrusted. He betrayed his oaths. He betrayed his friends. Anybody who worked with him will be suspect. Young people in positions like that will no longer be trusted with responsibility for fear that they will turn into another Snowden. He betrayed his employers. Booz Allen and the C.I.A. took a high-school dropout and offered him positions with lavish salaries.

He is violating the honor codes of all those who enabled him to rise.
This is at odds with my read on what ails America. I'd put it this way to Brooks. Think about all the people working for Booz Allen. Or think of every young American making six figures at consulting firms. What is a greater problem for the United States, that those people are insufficiently loyal to their peers in the "meritocratic elite" and the companies paying their salaries? Or that they are too narrowly loyal to those within their subcultures, and think too little of society? Are they insufficiently loyal, or excessively loyal, to "the honor codes of those who enabled them to rise?" Whether one thinks that Snowden should've acted as he did, or that he should've held on to the surveillance state's secret, it seems obvious that he wasn't being selfish.

Far from being "so individualistic in [his] outlook that [he had] no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good," he apparently decided, on behalf of what he (rightly) believes to be the common good, to sacrifice his career, his romantic relationship, and almost certainly his freedom. Instead of making $200K, living in Hawaii, and working on a computer, he'll likely spend decades in prison. This is individualism run amok?  

Brooks says that a well-functioning society requires "basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures." If so, isn't a secret surveillance state problematic? What's the effect on trust when government lies about whether it is spying on its citizens? Does Brooks think massive digital surveillance might make society more vulnerable to paranoia and conspiracy theories? Wasn't it "common procedure" to leave the vast majority of U.S. citizens free from government surveillance unless they were suspected of a crime? The focus on alleged pathologies of Snowden takes focus away from more worrisome ills.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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