A Brief Response to Peter Schwartz on Edward Snowden

Let me start by saying that I respect Peter Schwartz and am very much looking forward to his new book on altruism, The Tyranny of Need.

In addition, those familiar with my podcast and writings know that I agree with Schwartz’s condemnation, in an article he posted yesterday on his blog, of the NSA’s indiscriminate surveillance programs. However, I disagree with his view, stated in that article, that “what Edward Snowden has done is worse.”

Schwartz questions Snowden’s commitment to the principle of “the individual’s right to be free from a coercive state” for a few reasons.

First, he notes that Snowden stole over one million classified documents, many of which concern legitimate NSA surveillance programs. But I doubt that Snowden, working covertly, had the luxury of sifting through the million-plus potentially relevant documents. He may have had a window of only a very few minutes to download what he needed. Moreover, Snowden has given permission for only a fraction of the total documents to be released and Glenn Greenwald has said that he and the other journalists have heeded Snowden’s wishes (more on Greenwald in a minute). Finally, it may be true that revealing information about the NSA’s methods — some of which it uses legitimately — could make a terrorist’s job easier. But if revealing those methods is necessary to alert the American people to the injustice committed by the NSA, then so be it.

Schwartz writes that, when Snowden went to Hong Kong, he “identified for Chinese officials which of their computers had been penetrated by the NSA.” I did a brief Google search on this and found this article, in which we learn that Snowden spoke to the Hong Kong press about NSA monitoring of computers in Hong Kong and mainland China, but I didn’t see anything about Snowden indicating, to Chinese officials, which specific computers had been hacked. As for “cozy[ing] up to rulers of . . . police states” (Schwartz quotes Snowden praising several of these), he unfortunately had no choice. It is only that type of state that entertained, in any serious way, Snowden’s request for asylum. Early on, Snowden said he had hoped to go to Iceland, and in later interviews he said he sent requests to numerous countries. But I am unaware of any semi-free state in the world that offered to take Snowden in, much less give him safe passage.

Finally, Schwartz criticizes Snowden’s choice of Greenwald as the journalist to whom he entrusted the stolen documents. Snowden decided, I think reasonably, that the only way to fight the NSA’s unjust surveillance programs was to publicize their existence via the press. Snowden has spoken repeatedly about his attempts to complain about the programs via the proper chain of command, as well as the fact that the whistleblower statutes that Obama keeps talking about do not protect contractors like Snowden. So Snowden needed to leave the country, and then find a sympathetic member of the press, one with journalistic integrity. I don’t know of a non-leftist journalist who would (1) agree with Snowden that what the NSA is doing is wrong and be willing to travel to Hong Kong to meet him, and (2) have the position and contacts necessary to broadly disseminate the information. Greg Gutfeld and Ambassador John Bolton, for example, are two of the better libertarian-conservative commentators on Fox News. Both Tammy Bruce and I were surprised when both of these men came out in favor of the NSA bulk metadata collection programs and, consequently, against Snowden. (You can find my interview of Ambassador Bolton, in which we discussed Bolton’s condemnation of Snowden, here.)

I believe Snowden allied himself with Greenwald for the limited purpose of publicizing the NSA’s unjust, indiscriminate surveillance programs. In fact, Greenwald said that Snowden put restrictions on the release of the data with which he, Greenwald, disagreed, but nonetheless honored as a matter of journalistic integrity.

I am no fan of Ron Paul, and I disagree with some Snowden asides that sound like they’re right out of Paul’s foreign policy. But I have not seen anything that I believe Snowden has done with the intention of undermining a proper policy of self-defense. So far as I can tell, all has been incidental to the actions one in Snowden’s context would take if he wanted to uphold “the individual’s right to be free from a coercive state,” but not martyr himself completely in the process.

For more on Snowden as hero or traitor, listen to Leonard Peikoff’s podcasts here, here and here.


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14 responses to “A Brief Response to Peter Schwartz on Edward Snowden

  1. c andrew

    Amy Peikoff wrote:
    Snowden has spoken repeatedly about his attempts to complain about the programs via the proper chain of command, as well as the fact that the whistleblower statutes that Obama keeps talking about do not protect contractors like Snowden.
    That is a good point, but here’s something to drive home the point of Snowden’s dilemma. Let’s look at a case where the whistleblower in question was covered by the relevant statutes. Look at what the government did to him.
    “Where I see it going is toward a totalitarian state,” William Binney says of the National Security Agency (NSA), the place where he worked for 30 years before becoming a whistleblower and eventually quitting. “You’ve got the NSA doing all this collecting of material on all of its citizens-that’s what the SS, the Gestapo, the Stasi, the KGB, and the NKVD did.”
    Binney resigned from his high-ranking post as technical leader for intelligence in 2001. In 2002, more than a decade before Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations rocked the world, he and several former colleagues went to Congress and the Department of Defense, requesting that the NSA be investigated. Not only was the super-secretive agency wasting taxpayer dollars on ineffective programs, they argued, it was broadly violating constitutional guarantees to privacy and due process.
    The federal government didn’t just turn a blind eye to the abuses Binney and company warned against; it accused the whistleblowers of leaking state secrets. A federal investigation of Binney-including an FBI search and seizure of his home and office computers that destroyed his consulting business-exonerated him on all charges. “We are a clear example that [going through] the proper channels doesn’t work,” he says. It’s no wonder that Snowden went to the media first, Binney says, even if (in Binney’s estimation) the now-resident of Russia was wrong to leak documents not directly related to unconstitutional NSA surveillance of American citizens.




    c andrew

    • Great example C Andrew, thanks.

    • Good point, thanks for adding it. It seems there’s a negative correlation between the level of injustice/corruption in the government generally, and the amount of success you can expect when following the proper whistleblowing procedures. If Snowden had followed only proper procedures, we would probably not be having this discussion today.

  2. Well written. Agree 100%.

  3. You’re absolutely correct on this Snowden-issue, Ms. Peikoff; kudos to your sound principled-mind. It seems pretty simple: out-of-control Statist-Gov’t ignoring our rights–including the whistleblowers who try to follow legal protocol in defense of those rights. I, too, always respected Mr. Schwartz’s opinions but he scares me on this one! Is it unfair of me to quietly wonder if he’s on their payroll (like with the Fox-News people)?

    • Is it unfair of me to quietly wonder if he’s on their payroll (like with the Fox-News people)?

      Yes, although I’m one to talk: On my podcast I am guilty of joking about what the NSA has on various people who have refused to criticize the bulk metadata collection program.

  4. Couldn't B. Righter

    You are right and Schwartz is wrong. Anyone who argues against Snowden rather than focussing on the facts contained in the documents he released showing the government’s violation of our rights is arguing ad hominem, and a particularly brutish form of ad hominem. I, for one, don’t care a whit about Snowden’s politics, or Glenn Greenwald’s. All such ad hominem arguments are intended to be a smokescreen to avoid confronting the real issues. Schwartz should be ashamed of himself.

    • I don’t see his argument as ad hominem, but rather as an evaluation of the relative harms caused by the NSA’s improper programs and Snowden’s revelations about the NSA generally. The way I see it, any safety benefit we were getting incidentally due to improper NSA programs, was a benefit we weren’t entitled to anyway. And if legitimate programs are damaged in the process of doing what is necessary to expose and eliminate the illegitimate ones, then so be it. Perhaps the debate comes down to what Schwartz and I believe about what was necessary to expose and (hopefully, someday) eliminate the improper programs.

  5. I have difficulty believing that Snowden’s revelations are of any use in the fight for protecting our rights. I don’t see that government surveillance make us any less safe: the government already has the power to destroy anyone for any reason.

    And sure the NSA snooping is improper — but we already knew that anyhow.

    Further, we shouldn’t be wasting time snooping on terrorists, in the first place. We should be cutting off their sources, i.e., killing the Islamist government(s) behind them. This is not rocket science.

    I agree that Obama is far more dangerous than Putin. But isn’t attacking Obama for the NSA stuff a case of barking up the wrong tree, i.e., going after inessentials?

  6. “But if revealing those methods is necessary to alert the American people to the injustice committed by the NSA, then so be it.”

    I believe this is the correct way of evaluating the morality of Snowden’s revelations. He may well have engaged in traitorous actions, but it appears this was the only way left for anyone to expose the evil program. To decide that he shouldn’t have done it, I would first need evidence that he knowingly unleashed an immediate existential threat to US lives.

  7. I think you have given an excellent, principled and irrefutable response to Peter Schwartz Amy. I couldn’t agree more. The devastating consequences to individuals lives and the culture at large from the threat of “No Place to Hide” and the loss of freedom of expression far out weigh the consequences of the alleged threat of terrorism.

  8. Pingback: Are you on the NSA’s List? Today at 12 p.m. PT (3 p.m. ET) | Don't Let It Go

  9. “When you leak the CIA’s secrets, you can harm people,” he said, referring to covert agents and informants. “I wasn’t willing to do that. But when you leak the NSA’s secrets, you only harm abusive systems. I was much more comfortable with that.”
    -Glenn Greenwald (quoting Edward Snowden)
    No Place To Hide, p. 43

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