Edward Snowden and the Death of Nuance

The opinions and rhetoric on both sides of the Snowden story have only grown more strident and inflexible, leaving no room for nuanced opinions or the possibility that Snowden perhaps is neither a traitor nor a hero but something else entirely.

As the noise and drama surrounding the NSA surveillance leaks and its central character, Edward Snowden, have continued to grow in the last few months, many people and organizations involved in the story have taken great pains to line up on either side of the traitor/hero line regarding Snowden’s actions. While the story has continued to evolve and become increasingly complex, the opinions and rhetoric on either side has only grown more strident and inflexible, leaving no room for nuanced opinions or the possibility that Snowden perhaps is neither a traitor nor a hero but something else entirely.

When the first stories based on the documents Snowden stole from the NSA began appearing last June, the reactions from those in the security and privacy community were strong and completely predictable for the most part. Many privacy advocates and people involved in security and civil liberty causes praised Snowden’s actions, saying that he had performed a tremendous service for Americans, as well as other users of the Internet around the world, by revealing the scope of the NSA’s surveillance operations and its alleged abuses of power. That sentiment has gained more supporters along the way, with hugely powerful organizations adding their voices to the pro-Snowden chorus. Earlier this month, the editorial board of The New York Times said that Snowden deserved clemency from criminal prosecution and that his actions were “clearly justified”.

“Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service,” the Times editorial says.

The anti-Snowden camp has been just as loud, however. NSA director Keith Alexander, President Barack Obama and members of Congress have decried Snowden’s actions, saying he has compromised the NSA’s ability to collect foreign intelligence and harmed national security. Some have even gone so far as to say that Snowden had endangered the lives of U.S. troops and probably also had been a mole for a foreign power. Robert Gates, the former secretary of the Defense Department, said in an interview earlier this month with PBS that he considered Snowden to be a traitor who should face severe consequences for his actions.

“I think that the revelations have done a lot of damage,” Gates said in the interview. “I think he’s a traitor.”

In some ways, the people pushing the Snowden-as-traitor narrative have a decided advantage here. This group comprises politicians, intelligence officials, lawmakers and others whose opinions carry the implicit power and weight of their offices. Whatever one thinks of Obama, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Alexander, they are among the more powerful men on earth and their public pronouncements by definition are important. If one of them declares Snowden to be a traitor or says that he should spend the rest of his life in prison for his actions, there is a sizable portion of the population who accepts that as fact.

That is not necessarily the case on the other side of the argument. However, many members of both the hero and traitor crowds formed their opinions reflexively, aligning themselves with the voices they support and then standing pat, regardless of the revelation of any new facts or evidence. They take the bits and pieces of Snowden’s story arc that fit with their own philosophy, use them to bolster their arguments and ignore the things that don’t help. This, of course, is in no way unique to the Snowden melodrama. It is a fact of life in today’s hyper-fragmented and hype-driven media environment, a climate in which strident opinions that fit on the CNN ticker or in a tweet have all but destroyed the possibility of nuanced discourse.

Snowden himself has provided plenty of evidence that things are quite a bit muddier than they may seem. Though he started by revealing NSA collection programs that some judges have now declared illegal, such as the metadata program, more recent leaks have exposed legitimate intelligence operations against foreign adversaries. How do those revelations fit with the hero storyline? And how do acknowledgements from Obama and some lawmakers that the NSA may have overstepped its bounds and needs to be reined in fit with the traitor narrative?

But people aren’t allowed to change their minds anymore. Saying that there may be some middle ground or grey area is seen as a sign of weakness, of moving off the party line. There is no greater crime in American media today than not having an opinion set in stone. You’ll be branded a flip-flopper and forever exiled from the lucrative talking head circuit. And then how will you sell your memoir or your motivational speeches?

The race to label Snowden as either a traitor or a hero has been counterproductive and done absolutely nothing to advance the far more important discussion around reforming intelligence collection or the fact that the Internet itself should now be considered compromised. Few things in life are entirely one thing or another. In the end, whether Snowden wears a black hat or a white one matters far less than what comes from his actions.

Image from Flickr photos of Duncan Hull.

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