A Liberal Moderate's Critique of Snowden and Greenwald

George Packer is the latest journalist to understate the radicalism of the national security state and to overstate the radicalism of its critics.

In a review of Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, George Packer, whose best work is superb, makes a number of dubious claims. They are typical of liberal moderates who acknowledge that the NSA's behavior is worrisome yet direct their most scathing remarks at the people who revealed it, as if they are the ones who pose an ongoing threat to what is right and good. The liberal moderates present themselves as sober analysts striving for objectivity. They're careful to name excesses of the national-security state and its critics, but only the latter are subject to scorn, disdain, and ad hominem attacks. Sometimes I wonder if a formal etiquette guide to that effect is tucked into the seat-back pouches on the Acela Express.

Packer is best understood by beginning here:

Snowden is a libertarian whose distrust of institutions and hostility to any intrusion on personal autonomy place him beyond the sphere in American politics where left and right are relevant categories. A temperament as much as a philosophy, libertarianism is often on the verge of rejecting politics itself, with its dissatisfying but necessary trade-offs; it tends toward absolutist positions, which grow best in the mental equivalent of a hermetic laboratory environment. Libertarianism has become practically the default position of young people who work in technology, especially the most precocious among them.

He adds that Greenwald shares this political outlook, "though not completely."

Set aside arguments about the nature of libertarianism. There's something else I find extraordinary about that passage. Consider the United States since September 11, 2001. In this era, when you think of ideologues who verge on rejecting politics, take absolutist positions, and operate in a sealed-off environment, do you think of the ideology that gave birth to the Iraq War, torture, classified law, indefinite detention, kill lists, and secret warrantless wiretapping? Do you think of Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo, John Brennan, and James Clapper? I do. But George Packer thinks of libertarianism! And he thinks of Snowden and of Greenwald, one of the most consistent voices opposing the idea that the national-security state ought to operate unilaterally, in secret, beyond politics.

The biggest factual error in that Packer passage is the suggestion that Snowden, Greenwald and other NSA critics object to "any intrusion on personal autonomy." Snowden and Greenwald, and NSA critics like me, are perfectly fine with federal surveillance that intrudes on the autonomy and privacy of individual Americans, so long as the government obtains an individualized warrant from a judge based upon probable cause indicating that the target is engaged in criminality.

Adherence to the plain text of the Fourth Amendment is all the NSA's critics are demanding, not a radical transformation of the principles that govern life in America. That's why NSA critics tend to invoke the Framers, the Bill of Rights, the Church Committee, and the widely accepted notion that Americans have a right to privacy—rather than some manifesto setting forth a new paradigm for a utopian future. 

Meanwhile, here are some of the ways that national-security professionals describe their goals:

NSA via Edward Snowden

The National Reconnaissance Office logo is a perfect metaphor. Civil libertarians aren't speaking out against "any intrusion on personal autonomy" but against a multi-agency bureaucracy that intends to wrap its spying tentacles around the whole earth. 

Hence the absurdity of writing as if Snowden has a revolutionary vision for the future that motivated him to spill government secrets to similarly utopian journalists.

Snowden's actual position is that the NSA has engaged in massive violations of the U.S. Constitution and existing law. (Snowden literally leaked a FISA-court opinion explicitly declaring that the NSA violated the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans on numerous occasions.) Greenwald emphatically agrees. If they're right that tens of millions of Americans were having their rights violated, and that national-security officials were constantly violating the law, Snowden's whistleblowing did far more to bolster the rule of law than to undermine it, even if the act of revealing classified documents was itself unlawful. 

It would be a different story if the NSA were actually adhering to the Constitution and subjecting itself to the normal mechanisms of democratic institutions. Tellingly, Packer does not contest that the Fourth Amendment was being violated or that national-security officials broke the law on many occasions. He seems to agree.

Yet he persists in treating Snowden and Greenwald as the threat to the rule of law, partly because Snowden fled the country rather than facing prison. For Packer, his flight "betrays the demanding but necessary principle of civil disobedience—from Thoreau to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King—which requires that conscientious dissenters who act against an unjust law must be willing to pay the price." 

That raises an interesting question. Imagine that King had participated in the anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama, but instead of being arrested on the spot, as occurred on April 12, 1963, he was notified about a warrant issued for his arrest. Say that, rather than turning himself over to police in Birmingham for his lawbreaking, he fled the city and the state under cover of darkness, checked into a hotel room in New York (or even Canada), and started penning letters as a fugitive.

Had King made that decision, would Packer excoriate him? Would he regard King as a threat to the rule of law and an unreasonable absolutist rejecting politics? Would he draw equivalences between King's misdeeds and the misdeeds of those seeking his arrest? I predict that Packer's attitude toward Snowden will one day seem as absurd as someone insisting that MLK would be worthy of condemnation if he hadn't gone to jail, or that the activists who stole FBI files proving improper spying ultimately harmed the rule of law by never turning themselves in. 

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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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