“Hero or traitor?” was the original question. I don’t like these labels, and they are putting people into categories of two extremes, villain or saint. … By law, he fits the legal definition of a whistle-blower. He is someone who exposed broad waste, abuse and in his case illegality. … And he also said he was making the disclosures for the public good and because he wanted to have a debate.
-Jessica Radack, lawyer from the Government Accountability, in conversation with USA Today
During the last week, I’ve had several conversations about PRISM and the leaks that revealed the program. Almost invariably, these conversations veer toward a discussion of Edward Snowden. Is he a self-sacrificing hero or an egotistical fabricator? Has he enlightened American citizens, or put the country at risk? And how about that pole-dancing girlfriend?
Talking about Edward Snowden (and, I admit, writing about him) is much easier than talking about the implications of the NSA’s surveillance of American citizens. Stories about his character and personal life are easy to spread. This is the result of a over a decade of suffocating celebrity culture, and the frenzied pace of social media. We are obsessed with individual notoriety and fame, and we apply the same paparazzi mentality toward every public figure, whether they be accused murderers or politicians. The celebrification of people from all fields impedes us from engaging in meaningful discourse of the issues America faces today. By indulging our curiosity for the details of Edward Snowden’s personal and professional life, we lose sight of the act he committed, a leak of information regarding a suspected but hitherto unconfirmed surveillance initiative geared by the United States Government toward its own citizens.
We are allowing ourselves to play a game of individualistic considerations, not public interest. The thought “I have nothing to hide, it doesn’t affect me,” pairs easily with the question, “Who is this Snowden guy, anyway?” Americans act as though the likeability of Edward Snowden is a prerequisite to our acting on the truths he unveiled, those truths seeming remote from our individual well-being, anyway. It is easier to work our way through character analysis than to engage in complex issues of privacy and civil liberties. If we can dismiss him, and the surveillance doesn’t bother us in any immediate way, then we don’t have to worry about what he says.
The troubling thing is that journalists are aware of the tendency of facile gossip and character dissection to displace serious discourse. They remark on it even as they engage in it. Jezebel‘s Katie J.M. Baker writes, “It’s bullshit to focus on Snowden’s personal life instead of the real bullshit he exposed,” but she buries this sentence in an article about Snowden’s girlfriend that analyzes the woman’s Instagram photos and blog musings. Writing in Mashable, Alex Fitzpatrick advise Snowden that if he “wants to minimize the media’s increasing tendency to characterize him as an exaggerator, he would be wise to choose his words more carefully.” The article is entitled “Edward Snowden Falsely Claims Government Accused Him of Treason,” and it seizes upon a possibly inaccurate statement Snowden made in today’s live Q&A with readers of the Guardian. Fitzpatrick misses the point, though. If we are worried about whether Snowden is making false claims about the government’s reaction to him, then we may already be at a point where we have forgotten his original claims, those which have been deemed credible by a number of past NSA whistleblowers.
It matters little whether Edward Snowden, the man, is not careful with his words when speaking off-the-cuff. Nor does it matter what his girlfriend is like or whether he reported his salary with precise accuracy. Snowden summarized the state of things best himself in today’s Q&A with Guardian readers
Unfortunately, the mainstream media now seems far more interested in what I said when I was 17 or what my girlfriend looks like rather than, say, the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history.
What matters is that the United States government is engaged in unfettered surveillance of its citizens, and that they have been doing so via un-Democratic channels for years. When polled, however, many Americans do not find this to be an issue. According to a CNN/ORC International Survey, 51% of Americans think the NSA’s surveillance of American phone records is the right thing to do, and even more approve of internet surveillance programs. The failure of Americans to be wary of such massive government power is unnerving.
We have quickly and effectively been steered away from addressing the NSA’s incursions against our liberty by our and our media’s failures. The most frightening possibility, though, is that some of this diversion was intentionally engineered by another layer of secretive private contractors. Peter Lundlow, writing in The New York Times, indirectly suggests that by succumbing to our interest in the personal narrative of Edward Snowden, we may have already fallen victim to intentional campaigns designed to thwart a backlash against the NSA. Private intelligence firms, Lundlow explains, set out to manipulate the American public much in the way Army psyops teams do when operating in foreign wars. Psyops are “planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.” This is little different than what happens here, as leaked emails from companies like Team Themis, a consortium of private security firms, suggest. Team Themis has worked to undermine the credibility of journalists (Glenn Greenwald) and critics of government agencies (ChamberWatch). Team Themis’ work, in short, is to engage in Psyops campaigns against the American public. As Lundlow writes,
[I]t is sometimes more effective to deceive a population into a false reality than it is to impose its will with force or conventional weapons. Of course this could also apply to one’s own population if you chose to view it as an “enemy” whose “motives, reasoning, and behavior” needed to be controlled.
In this frame, the enemy is the American public, as informed by journalists and organizations critical of the War on Terror’s tactics. Propaganda is no new thing, and has been used by the American government to bolster past war efforts. But rather than try to encourage Americans to behave in ways that enhance public safety (for example, “If you see something, say something,” or “Loose lips sink ships!”), these psyops practices aim to alter our sense of reality in order to protect not citizens and country, but the closed-door practices of our elected (and appointed) officials.
Personally, I try to avoid indulging in thoughts of government disinformation, which reek of conspiracy theory quackery and seem rooted in pathological paranoia. But with the news of NSA surveillance giving way so easily to character assassination of Edward Snowden, it seems our media, which ought to lead the public toward informed conversations about its government institutions, is more vulnerable than ever, weakened by its preference for reporting on personalities rather than nuanced issues. We will tire of Snowden, then, as we tire of other over-exposed personalities, and the policies we ought to debate will fade from public scrutiny, allowing the NSA to continue and expand its secretive work.