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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  • Me on

    I wonder if Snowden's earlier leaks were more justifiable than his later ones if maybe the early ones speak more to his motivation to leak and the later ones are his 'rent' to keep Russia from sending him back to the US?
    • TitusPrime on

      Snowden has not engaged in espionage with the selling of classified information as far as we know and what he has released has been publicly distributed.I do not think the Russian Intelligence Agency be very happy if they had paid for information and he then released it to the public. Also, it was not the Russian Government that exposed our foreign surveillance targets. From a strictly intelligent point of view, that would have been really dumb. ;) I do not think they are dumb. Russia is the master of subterfuge and espionage; they proved that with the cold war. Not because they won any battles, but because they managed to convince the entire world that they were the ones that you had better not mess with.
  • David Collier-Brown on

    I wonder if this polarization is as prevalent in Europe as in America? Certainly in Canada it's obvious that the U.S. has become very polarized and expressed concern that the problem is leaking across the border.
  • ABC on

    Clearly the Snowden story is not about Snowden but about the NSA and the actions of the government. Personalizing it is a distraction.
    • sgt_doom on

      Exactly and perfectly stated! The subcontext might also be the privatizing of the American intelligence establishment, which would never have occurred (thousands of contracting firms with Carlyle Group's Booz Allen, SAIC, Raytheon leading the way) had they ever been concerned with operational security.
  • Hate Disinformation on

    "the documents Snowden stole" Stole? He was authorised to handle the documents, he then shared them with the world. "Stole" is way over the top. "more recent leaks have exposed legitimate intelligence operations against foreign adversaries" Really? Where?
  • Undercurrents on

    One nuance that is missed in this article is the fact that Snowden has not released anything to the public. He gave the docs to journalist and the journalist are the ones deciding what gets released. Snowden and the journalist have been very consistent with this and I find no evidence to think otherwise.
  • Joe Snuffy on

    Those that feel that Snowden should not be prosecuted should think about the situation if *their* personal or credit information was stolen and passed along to someone else. Profit or no, it's a crime.
    • David Collier-Brown on

      I'd be extremely unhappy if my credit information was stolen, ... especially if it showed I was guilty of major crimes. In fact, I would be especially unhappy if I were in fact a criminal, and be inclined to describe the theif in the harshest of terms.
    • sgt_doom on

      If you are so concerned about that, then the massive and felonious fraudclosure committed by the top criminal organizations in America (JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs [their subsidiaries], HSBC, Wells Fargo, Citi Bank, Deutsche Bank and US Bank) should weigh heavily on your conscience.
    • GmanTerry on

      The Government has STOLEN all of our personal data. They explained their rational as being: We used to collect data after a crime to try to catch crooks. Now we collect it before, during and after. There is no escaping. We now live in a Police State.
  • canadian on

    Did anyone actually think their encryption was secure? Did they think the americans lifted the export controls way back in the late 20th century? It is the governments job to spy on foreign powers including spying on Canada and its friends. We spy on you and you spy on us. Freedom? Your freedom is to choose not to walk into traffic; at least for now until your google glasses control your body movements. Snow was given access, yes, his authorization was not to share with the world. Frankly, life in prison is not good enough. Death by firing squad. We Canadians thank the Russian spy Snowden for harming the USA and we welcome our Chinese overlords
  • Anon on

    This is missing the point, it isn't Snowden's responsibility to vet which details/documents should be made public. His responsibility was to get evidence of what he reasonably considered wrongdoing into the hands of people who do have the responsibility for proper publication of the information - the journalists and organizations given the documents. Given that he had seen wrongdoing in some areas it was prudent and responsible to get as many documents as possible - much like a warrent based on reasonable suspicion allows for searching a home for more evidence. This article is confusing his responsibility with those who are actually publicizing the information. Snowden did not reveal anything publicly, he only gave that information privately. You can criticize his choices of who he leaked to, but that doesn't take away from the heroism of taking action against wrongdoing by great power.
  • JAG on

    Can somebody explain to me what nuance means. It's a term socialists use when they just say they're going to kill 50 million babies for the greater good. Snowden is a Libertarian. He's a Constitutionalist. It's very simple. A child can understand the Supreme Law of the Land. The rest of you seem to need interpreters- like, "What does 'is' mean?" Isn't the Constitution a "Living" document that we can therefore stab to death?
  • min on

    Wow - all these comments are very much proving the author's point. (Hint: it wasn't "is Snowden a hero or a traitor?")
  • Tom on

    He signed a non-disclosure agreement, with very well-defined consquences for releasing information. There is no excuse.
    • David Collier-Brown on

      An NDA doesn't authorize failing to report a criminal offence. A company in Canada tried to hide the fact they had stolen a (CP/M 80) assembler by making non-disclosure a part of the sales contract. We reported it to the police and the press, and could legitimately claim "limited privilege".
      • KF on

        The reporting is the kicker. Maybe I missed the part where he followed the established procedures for reporting criminal behavior. What he did is more akin to a vigilante act. I often have to remind my friends that throughout history, people doing good deeds have been punished. And willingly accepting one's punishment separates good men from great men.
  • Anonymous on

    It is not just the internet that is compromised, it is the security in computing in general. It is not just your credit card number at risk, it is your entire life, and they call that security. In the world of the mob if you see something illegal one is supposed to keep quiet about it, Edward Snowden did not and now the US is pretty bent out of shape, what does that tell you? I do not believe that the insurrection by organized crime was limited to the UK.
  • sgt_doom on

    "..that some judges declared illegal" Excuse me, but as anyone with functioning neurons knows, the simpleton judge who declared it OK cited nonexistent source to support his "ruling" - - - which should necessitate his recall and question his qualifications for any judgeship.
  • sgt_doom on

    The United States Constitution and any and all FEDERAL OATHS sworn to by Edward Snowden trumps all NDAs. Period! http://www.privacysos.org/node/1311
  • Frank on

    What you identify is competing factions of digital Maoists, as described by Jaron Lanier (http://www.edge.org/conversation/digital-maoism-the-hazards-of-the-new-online-collectivism) - you either join the collective, or are silenced by exclusion before being re-educated by the winning mass.
  • Anonymous on

    "Death of Nuance" is a little strong - when have there ever been either whistleblowers or spy cases (whichever you think of Snowden as) with nuances? As for the continued leaks, take a look at how Wikileaks and prior whistleblowing/spying activities have played out. Strong initial public reaction against the government, which was reduced and largely controlled by frequent governmental statements following the incident. Since public exposure of gov't view has been deciding in each of those cases, Snowden is continuing to release to ensure that the story stays in the headlines, so his views have a continuing voice. If I'm not mistaken, it's working - The NY Times endorsed him, as mentioned above, and IIRC, the same folks were much less interested in Assange.
  • JAG on

    This article is as useless as only a journalist could write it. No, there is no middle ground in slavery. The American Revolution was fought because of this. It wasn't a Tea tax that brought it falling down. It was 1 Brit monitoring every 3 Americans. Confiscation of letters and property. Quartering themselves inside your home. This is happening to everyone- again- now. How many seconds do you think you would keep your job if you wrote an article with facts instead of your worthless feelings? The data is there. The grey area is between your ears.

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