It wasn’t even two weeks ago that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden published his letter on Wikileaks — and already it's been banished to the cultural memory hole. It didn't reflect well on anyone. Titled “Statement From Edward Snowden In Moscow,” it should’ve been the Millennials’ “Letter From Birmingham Jail” but instead it’s being treated like an embarrassing family secret that you don’t talk about — let's just pretend it never happened, and move on.
Everyone failed that moment: Snowden failed to live up to the moment, and that’s putting it lightly; but even stranger was how Snowden’s legions of supporters failed him at his most desperate and isolated moment, declaring, without any evidence, that his statement was a forgery, that someone else had hijacked Snowden's voice, taking advantage of his isolation, for reasons never quite explained.
The statement, published July 1, was Snowden’s first communication to the world since fleeing Hong Kong a week earlier for the strange and discomforting no-man’s-land of the Sheremetyevo Airport transit zone — in fact, it’s the only direct, unmediated and unedited communication between Snowden and the public since he blew the whistle on the NSA world-police-state programs. It’s the most authentic Edward Snowden we have, a plea from someone trapped, hunted and alone — and yet his first and at the time only direct plea was dismissed as a fake by very same people Snowden reached out to. The one Snowden authority who should’ve known best, Glenn Greenwald, even went on national cable TV casting doubt on the authenticity Snowden's plea, his only communication to the world unfiltered by journalists or video editing — the journalist-lawyer even suggested that Assange’s WikiLeaks might’ve forged Snowden’s letter.
It’s the sort of terrifying comic twist from those old Philip K Dick novels — the authentic Snowden declared a forgery, less “real” than the mediated-and-manufactured Snowden framed for us by "The Guardian," the "Post" and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras; the real Snowden was rejected as a half-baked disappointment, the mediated Snowden was far more inspiring and impressive.
[Update: Today, as this issue went to bed, in Moscow, Snowden met with Russian Human Rights Watch official Tanya Lokshina and WikiLeaks attorney Sara Harrison, and released a new statement that is substantially different in tone and content from his first statement in isolation. We'll have more on Snowden's second communiqué next week — M.A.]
The problem Snowden’s supporters had with his July 1 statement wasn’t its substance, but rather its sophomoric quality — bad syntax, half-baked thinking. Twitter’s investigative sleuths — the crowd-sourced Inspector Clouseau collective with a disastrous record of fuckups — declared Snowden's own statement a forgery. Slate’s tech writer Farhad Manjoo tweeted that at best Snowden might’ve “signed off” on it, no way did he write it. "Mother Jones" editor Clara Jeffrey added to the false consensus, tweeting:
I agree with @fmanjoo. I doubt Snowden or any American wrote this. Syntax too weird.
That statement is written in fluent Assangese.
On MSNBC's "All In With Chris Hayes" show, Greenwald, the ultimate authority among Snowden’s supporters, blessed the wisdom of the consensus:
“It seemed to me like the core ideas were very much consistent with how Edward Snowden thinks, but that it was sort of flavored with some person who isn't Edward Snowden.”
Greenwald went on live national television discrediting both Snowden’s desperate plea from Hell, and inferring that Assange’s WikiLeaks had committed forgery. His reasoning was interesting: The polished video interview with Snowden — impressive, articulate, smooth, mature — was the real Snowden; video doesn’t lie. Therefore, the literary Snowden — sophomoric and “virulent” to use Greenwald’s description, a Snowden who read like any number of online bloggers, subverting the image carefully crafted on video and mediated through journalists — had to be a forgery. Both Snowdens — the impressive video Snowden, and the disappointingly common Snowden of the “Statement” — could not possibly occupy one universe at the same time.
As Chris Hayes put it — “there are a lot of people who felt like the syntax and the voice of that statement did not sound...even like a native English speaker.”
The false premises underlying this are based on romantic assumptions that Americans a) can write intelligently; b) can write like native English speakers; c) can write in a manner that “sounds” like how they speak, when in those rare instances said Americans have the gift of gab or speak intelligently. We’re not the most articulate folks, in case you haven’t noticed. We’re great at smiling, agreeing, back-slapping, and bombing the shit out of defenseless countries — but as a literary culture, we couldn’t write if our lives depended on it, as Snowden demonstrated. Even the really sophisticated-sounding Americans, or the ones with the gift of gab, write in an unrecognizable alien voice, especially when they’re writing for an audience and they think they need to sound smart and sophisticated. Read any school newspaper’s editorial page section: No one talks that way, that awful combination of hackneyed gravitas and shoddy grasp of our language’s grammar rules. Actually, nothing that comes out of the sclerotic Manhattan print industry reads like anything like how “native English speakers” in this country talk.
The reason this matters is because this is one of those moments where those of us who support Snowden or who at the very least do not view him as a traitor got a taste of some of the flawed and possibly dangerous assumptions that the Snowden camp is operating on — not very thorough, deeply invested in the cult. We’ve been told in no uncertain terms that Snowden is both a “hero” and an “historical figure”; the mediated Snowden fulfilled those expectations, whereas the real, unmediated Snowden was a bummer. The response to this disconnect has been a classic cult religious response: to protect the Snowden cult, the real Snowden had to be denounced as a forgery and abandoned to his isolation for several more days until he could finally arrange a chat session with Greenwald. That led to the cult response #2: Amnesia that it ever happened, move on, don’t reflect on what it says about the pro-Snowden camp’s assumptions and thinking, and what that might suggest about who’s leading this story, and where they're leading us to.
The history of leaks damaging to the surveillance state shows that each time a whistleblower exposes shocking or illegal programs, the surveillance state has reacted by tripling and quadrupling down on its Orwellian weaponry to protect itself. The CIA leaks to “Ramparts” in the 1960s led to the CIA’s MH-CHAOS domestic spying program that wound up spying on hundreds of thousands of Americans, and infiltrating and sabotaging many of the best alternative media publications. Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers leaks led to the creation of the White House Plumbers and an executive policy in which burglary, intimidation and illegal surveillance were used against political opponents and journalists. Leaks in the early Reagan years led to sharp rollbacks in FOIA laws approved in the 1970s, and the introduction of nondisclosure agreements on a massive scale; the Reagan Administration was so obsessed with leaks, CIA director Bill Casey even set up a secret CIA center in downtown Washington DC called the “Unauthorized Disclosures Analysis Center” (UDAC) which used intelligence agents to monitor media leaks and the journalists who leaked, in order to develop intelligence profiles, intimidate suspected leakers, and build criminal cases passed on to Reagan’s Justice Department. (The UDAC was made plausibly legal thanks to Reagan’s executive orders allowing the CIA to engage in domestic spying operations that fall under the purview of “international terrorism” — which pretty much means anything.)
CIA whistleblower Philip Agee exposed names of covert agents and their nefarious and catastrophic operations around the world in the mid to late 1970's; a few years later, we had the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, the law used by Obama to imprison John Kiriakou. And of course, Bradley Manning’s leaks led to both a massive tightening up of the secrecy apparatus through re-compartmentalization, and to one of the most odious programs in decades, “Insider Threat,” the new Pentagon program that requires government workers to spy on each other and report suspicious behavior. The leaks of the 1960s and 70s led, after an exhausting decade-long struggle, to some good new laws and statues that briefly, for a few years at least, put a leash on parts of the surveillance apparatus and the NatSec state. But it all snapped back into place with a vengeance as soon as Reagan took power, and it’s been getting worse by leaps and bounds ever since. Even some of the potentially good reforms like Carter's FISA court were half-baked compromises easily exploitable to the same sort of regulatory capture we saw in the banking industry, where New Deal agencies that had once kept a tight leash on predatory banks now became their front-men for plunder and fraud — Carter’s FISA courts are now a sort of extra-constitutional judicial branch issuing all sorts of precedent-setting legal rulings, all in total secrecy.
So the leaks themselves aren’t inherently good without a politics that converts them into change. Without change, the leaks only benefit a particularly narrow class — media, Washington PR flaks, lawyers, contractors...a demographic largely confined to the coastal corridor between Boston and Washington DC. Without positive political change, millions of lives can very easily get worse from the leaks. That’s not Snowden’s fault or Manning’s fault or Assange’s fault, but it is a fact. You don’t start an insurgency against a powerful beast like our NatSec state without knowing what the fuck you’re doing, without a politics and a well thought-out set of strategies and allies and such. Otherwise it becomes another one of those libertarian "disruption" fuck-ups that makes life worse for everyone but a tiny privileged few, only in this case, the disruption isn't in the local taxi industry but in surveillance and government power.
The tightening of the apparatus we're now seeing is something everyone, including Snowden, presumably expected, but like all righteous revolts it's presumably justified by the larger good that should come out of this - right? Snowden's leaks are truly awesome and stunning and fundamentally important and valuable — for the first time, there's at least a possibility of doing something about the privatization of military-intelligence, and the hypocrisy of libertarian Silicon Valley, which is up to its eyeballs in defense and intelligence contracts, has finally gone mainstream. But as I’ve argued, so far the politics and the framing of these leaks verge on total fucking disaster, the lack of critical debate on the pro-Snowden side is disturbing as Hell, and it’s devolving into a confused farce that could make things a shit-ton worse very soon, unless the pro-Snowden crowd gets more serious about opening itself to debating itself through this, rather than taking a cultish approach.
Which brings me back to Snowden’s letter-from-Hell, and the gaping historical and factual flaws in that letter that no one talked about, as they were too focused on poor Edward Snowden’s suburban American literary syntax, and his use of the third person plural “have” with the singular noun “The United States”....
Snowden’s first unchallenged error was to misrepresent Obama’s revocation of his passport as “extralegal.” It’s sinister as Hell, immoral, vicious, and vile; but it’s as legal as legal gets in this country, sanctified by the highest court in land. (Here we see another example of the flawed neoliberal/libertarian technocratic fetish for “rule-of-law” over politics and high-minded ideals — most or nearly all of this awful stuff is technically legal.)
Here’s the backstory: Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the US Secretary of State after it revoked the passport of CIA whistleblower Philip Agee while he was abroad in Germany. Chief Justice Burger wrote the opinion, arguing that passport travel is an “action” not “speech,” and that if the executive branch deemed that an American citizen’s activities abroad “are causing or are likely to cause serious damage to the national security or the foreign policy of the United States,” then the Constitution allowed, on national security grounds, for revoking his passport without due process or a hearing. Agee’s own words were used against him to prove that his intent was to damage the foreign policy of the United States — in 1974, when he quit the Agency, Agee announced a campaign "to expose CIA officers and agents and to take the measures necessary to drive them out of the countries where they are operating” — and over the next several years, he followed through with his promise, naming perhaps hundreds of covert CIA operatives, before taking refuge in Cuba. The two dissents came from the left-wing of the court — Thurgood Marshall and Harry Blackmun.
Agee came from a wealthy Catholic Florida family and was educated by Jesuits. His disillusionment with the Agency’s dark side began with his work in Ecuador, oddly enough, in 1960, when he was tasked with driving a wedge between Ecuador’s left-leaning leader and Castro’s Cuba.
Agee was given asylum in Cuba and again in Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua. Thanks to his Brazilian-German wife, Agee also obtained German travel papers. Agee’s first book “In The Company,” published in 1975, outed some 250 CIA agents. (The book was nearly sabotaged by a CIA informant named Sal Ferrera, who befriend Agee while he was living in exile in Paris, and gifted Agee with a fancy new typewriter that was rigged up with listening devices and transmission equipment — Agee put a photo of Ferrera’s typewriter on the cover of his book, and outed Ferrera as a CIA snitch who’d burrowed deep into the antiwar left.)
Agee also worked with the notorious anti-CIA muckraking outfit “Covert Action Information Bulletin” in the 70s, which also outed covert CIA operatives around the world. Agee was driven by a radical left politics, and he was consistent about it at least: He blew the whistle with the intention of destroying the CIA and what it stood for, hated the work he did helping arrange coups in Ecuador and other Latin American countries simply to to keep power in the pro-US oligarchy’s hands; Agee developed an intense hatred of capitalism and imperial exploitation. At least it could be said that Agee stayed true to his left-socialist, anti-oligarchy politics by taking refuge in Cuba and with the Sandinistas (Agee rejected the Soviets as another exploitative state). But Agee’s declaration of war against the American national security state also was a big factor in creating the Reagan backlash in 1980. Middle America wasn't into Agee's radical-left anti-American agenda, and given the choice between the guy in Cuba accused of aiding and abetting the assassination of an exposed CIA operative in Greece, or an actor who did films with monkeys, Middle America chose the monkey. (To get a sense of just how much Agee was despised, check out this old George Will column, "Philip Agee: No Passport, Less Trouble." It turned out that Agee had not been responsible for outing the murdered CIA officer in Greece; and when Barbara Bush repeated that smear in 1994, Agee sued her for libel, forcing the former First Lady to remove the smear from the paperback edition of her autobiography.) Agee’s leaks were also what led Congress to pass the 1982 law making it a crime to expose the identities of covert intelligence operatives. This law — which Ron Paul voted for in 1982, and which Joe Biden voted against — was recently used to convict and imprison CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou.
So yeah, pulling a whistleblower’s passport while he’s in a foreign country is constitutionally legal. It’s awful and it seems like something a Tsar or a Putin would do, not America — but it’s legal, and the reason it’s legal is because Americans turned against Philip Agee, and by extension, turning against him, they wound up turning against the cult of the heroic whistleblower saint, which was so powerful in the 1970s, drawing so many talented people out of the NatSec state and into the open to tell their stories. By the time Reagan was elected, no one wanted to hear it anymore, and the reforms were too fleeting and half-assed to survive the first kick.
Which is why, when people try to pretend “it’s not about Snowden” or “it’s not about the whistleblower, it’s about the revelations” they’re being disingenuous. These things are incredibly volatile and unpredictable; you better know what you’re doing, where you’re going with this, and be committed to a long-term political struggle or shit will get worse.
...That’s one of the glaring historical errors in Snowden’s letter that no one called out. The other is when he wrote,
For decades the United States of America have been one of the strongest defenders of the human right to seek asylum.
Most people sneered at Snowden’s grammar error, even though it’s the part of the letter that proves its authenticity as the product of a native-born American. No one called out the factual flaw about America “for decades” defending asylum seekers from human rights abuses.
Anyone familiar with the Sanctuary movement in the Reagan years would wince at that statement. In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration made Central America the proxy battleground for its policy of waging war on Communism and leftist ideology. We funded, trained and advised dirty wars in Guatemala, where we backed a genocidal dictator; El Salvador, where US-backed forces slaughtered and tortured tens of thousands; Honduras, where we trained up a death squad as a sort of preventative measure, to terrorize in-advance in case Hondurans might one day turn left; and of course we created the Contra army, which butchered tens of thousands of Nicaraguan villagers in order to make the country ungovernable for the Sandinistas. During that decade, well over a million refugees from Reagan’s dirty wars, many of them victims or survivors of massacres and cleansing campaigns, streamed over the border into the United States, where law enforcement was directed to expel them back to their home countries, even though they faced certain doom. Realizing what was happening, American churches mobilized an entire underground refugee and asylum network to protect and hide the Central American war refugees, who were hunted by both Reagan’s people and the death squads in their native countries. The Reagan Administration targeted scores of American church leaders for abuse, harassment, surveillance and sabotage, and eventually scores of religious figures and human rights activists were criminally prosecuted. Reagan also forcibly repatriated tens of thousands of asylum seekers from his dirty wars, many of whom wound up getting tortured, raped, and/or murdered as soon as they arrived back in their home countries. The Sanctuary movement’s legal defense argued unsuccessfully the same theory Snowden is arguing: that centuries-old tradition on asylum sanctuary and international law superseded Reagan’s immigration laws. The courts disagreed, upholding the criminal prosecutions of several American religious figures.
One of the key figures in Reagan’s war on Central American political asylum seekers was none other than Roger Pilon, the Cato Institute’s senior executive VP and head of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies. As the Reagan DOJ's director of the Office of Asylum Policy and Review, Pilon authored a proposed new extralegal and secret system for processing political asylum seekers from Central America’s dirty wars. Pilon’s proposals, which he said were done out of “humanitarian” reasons, included:
the removal of immigration judges from asylum hearings and the use of "asylum officers" in their place, closing the hearings to the public and eliminating some courtroom rules that now govern the proceedings.
Shortly afterwards, Pilon was accused of leaking a classified government report on South African Communists to South Africa’s apartheid intelligence agents, leading to Pilon’s “retirement” to his cushy, lifetime sinecure at the Cato Institute where he's remained ever since, harping on about civil liberties and the evils of big government.
I’m just scratching the surface of the Sanctuary movement story, it’s much nastier and bloodier than this. The fact that no one called these glaring mistakes out, or even knew to — that the best and brightest in the media elites only debated Snowden’s syntax and decided, wrongly, that it wasn’t Snowden — says to me we have no fucking idea what we’re getting into because we don’t even know our own recent history, our legal rulings, and therefore we don’t even know how the security state we oppose was constructed. In such a state of smug, butt-ignorance, are we really ready to risk everything for a struggle we’re pathetically unprepared for?
I’m afraid the answer to that is, we don’t really have a choice. We’ve already been dragged in, like it or not.