Jun 14, 2013

Perspective

UPDATE: I put together a tarted-up version of this post on Medium, just for funsies.

Josh Marshall has a strange and interesting post on Edward Snowden and leaks generally. It's hard to know where to start, but let's begin with how Marshall explains his feelings about the Bradley Manning case:
For me the story starts with the Bradley Manning case. This story has been going on for years and though I generally haven’t written much about it, when I have, I’ve made clear that I don’t see Manning as a hero or a whistleblower or really anything positive at all. At best I see him as a young and naive kid who got way in over his head.
When I first heard about the Manning case - or first understood that Manning was the likely source of the Wilileaks trove - I was frankly surprised that anybody saw him as a whistleblower. Perhaps due to the novelty of the Internet we don’t really have a lot of past analogues for the Manning type. We’re used to spies who give secrets to foreign governments, either because of ideology or money. But mass and fairly indiscriminate public disclosure is sort of a new phenomenon. In any case, back to the issue at hand. Pretty early I realized that to his supporters Manning was a whistleblower who was being persecuted by the government, almost like a political prisoner or prisoner of conscience.
Again, to me that’s a total nonsequitur.
I’m a journalist. And back when I did national security reporting I tried to get leaks. So I don’t think leaks are always wrong. I think the government and journalists both have legitimate interests that point in very different directions. In fact, leaks are an absolutely critical safety valve against government wrongdoing and/or excessive secrecy. But when someone in government leaks classified information they’re breaking an oath and committing a crime. That’s a big deal. Sometimes though the importance of what’s leaked justifies the act morally if not legally. That is often the case. And that’s one reason that while I think the laws against disclosure should be in place I also think it’s imprudent for the government to try too hard to enforce them. I do not see how you can’t prosecute Snowden since he’s revealed himself publicly. And leaks should sometimes be investigated. But in most cases it’s not worth snooping on journalists to try to find the culprit. The costs outweigh the gains. Because of that, it’s really impossible to say leaks are good or bad in general. It’s also true that people can leak information for petty or even evil reasons but the leak still serves a positive public purpose. Leaks are complicated. I think we know that. And being morally right doesn’t necessarily get you off the hook for committing a crime.
Coming from this perspective, it’s hard to see any justification for what Manning did, which is basically downloading everything he could find and giving it to a foreign national (Assange) with the expectation that he’d just dump it into the public. There were a couple clear cases of wrongdoing revealed in his documents. But the vast majority were fairly mundane diplomatic cables, military records and so forth. What on Earth do you think is going to happen to a soldier who almost literally breaks every rule in the book and dumps the country’s email files for the world to see?
Soldiers get in huge trouble for going AWOL, even though one individual soldier abandoning his post seldom does much damage to a country or an army. This is a far graver insubordination with incalculably more widespread consequences. And yet, again, some people see him as a hero who should be celebrated rather than tried and punished.
Now here's his description of the mentality of people like Manning and Snowden, and their defenders:
Here is I think the essential difference and where it comes back to what I referred to before - a basic difference in one’s idea about the state and the larger political community. If you see the state as essentially malevolent or a bad actor then really anything you can do to put a stick in its spokes is a good thing. Same if you think the conduct of US foreign policy is fundamentally a bad thing. Then opening up its books for the world to see is a good thing simply because it exposes it or damages it. It forces change on any number of levels.
From that perspective, there’s no really no balancing to be done. All disclosure is good. Either from the perspective of transparency in principle or upending something you believe must be radically changed.
And his description of his own position:
Let me put my cards on the table. At the end of the day, for all its faults, the US military is the armed force of a political community I identify with and a government I support. I’m not a bystander to it. I’m implicated in what it does and I feel I have a responsibility and a right to a say, albeit just a minuscule one, in what it does. I think a military force requires a substantial amount of secrecy to operate in any reasonable way. So when someone on the inside breaks those rules, I need to see a really, really good reason. And even then I’m not sure that means you get off scott free. It may just mean you did the right thing.
So do I see someone who takes an oath and puts on the uniform and then betrays that oath for no really good reason as a hero? No.
I originally glommed on to this point about radical transparency, which seemed like a good description of the attitude of Julian Assange (not that I agree with Marshall's scorn about it), but the rest of the post has been bothering me for awhile and it's only now that I'm getting a good handle on why.

What bothers me about this is the focus on the damage that people breaking the rules from the bottom are doing, and the corresponding lack of attention to people who leak in order to flatter the powerful; to manipulate the media, defend against attacks, and glorify the establishment. As Jack Shafer describes in detail, leaks happen nearly every day in Washington—it's just the ones that aren't sanctioned officially that are viciously punished.

Additionally, the whole last decade has been a nearly nonstop parade of abuses of elite power, often illegal, each coming on the heels of the last. We carried out a war of aggression, based on deliberately cooked intelligence, which resulted in the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions more. We let a major city drown due to cronyist incompetence. And we're still living with the consequences of a major failure of macroeconomic management brought on by colossal greed and fraud.

Let me focus on perhaps the most purely evil of all: the last president and nearly the entire top echelon of his administration created a regime of systematic torture in direct and obvious violation of a treaty duly ratified by Congress and President Reagan. This is (as our current top law enforcement officer implicitly agrees) a violation of the Constitution, which all those conspirators swore to defend and uphold. All of those people to this day got off without the slightest punishment, which is again a violation of the categorical commandments of that same treaty and therefore implicates the current administration in the war crimes of the previous one.

Wait, I forgot one. There was one person near the top of the power structure who was convicted of something. When people in the administration revealed the identity of a covert CIA agent as retribution for an op-ed by her husband questioning the case for war, there was an investigation and this man was caught lying.

His name was Scooter Libby, and his piddling 30-month sentence was commuted by President Bush.

So if Marshall begins with Bradley Manning (whose disclosures have not been proved to cause much actual harm, despite what was probably great effort to find some), I start with the broader context of a decade full to bursting with gross incompetence, treachery, and illegal evil, all carried out by the duly constituted authorities, almost none of which was punished even slightly. All of which is symptomatic of a broader breakdown of the rule of law—for powerless figures like Manning, the vengeance of the state is swift and merciless. His trial only just started, and already he has been imprisoned for three years, much of it in the torture of solitary confinement.

***

Marshall, as someone who identifies with the state, might respond that even though prosecuting someone leaking who intends to upend the system while turning a blind eye to those who leak on behalf of the system is hypocritical, preserving the system is a positive good even if it means some frankly authoritarian hypocrisy.

That might be a caricature, but I have some sympathy for this view. Where I part ways with the most aggressive critics of US imperialism is in the lack of perspective for just how horrible the vast majority of human history has been, and how brutal the world's most dominant power typically has been. The most powerful empire before the United States, Great Britain, was a bloody tyrant across something like a fifth of the globe. Even the sainted Winston Churchill deliberately prevented famine relief from reaching India, resulting in over a million deaths. I believe European colonialism will go down with the Holocaust as one of the most despicable acts in history.

So I can't identify with people like Ivan Illich who put the US on par with those previous empires. For one reason or another, this is probably the most peaceful age in recorded history.

On the other hand, it is very far from clear to me that the US security apparatus is responsible for that peace today. Keeping things stable during the Cold War, sure. But that's been over for more than 20 years. The US Navy, by maintaining secure shipping lanes across most of the globe, has a decent case. But are our various huge overseas bases doing much of anything? When actively used, our ground forces seem to be mostly for bloody, pointless quagmires that radically destabilize countries and set back the process of modernization for decades.

At this point the debate usually moves to the counterfactual. If it weren't for overpowering US military might, people say, then things would be much worse. I find this unconvincing. Perhaps it's part of it. But much more likely is that peace is a result of 1) figuring out how to prevent depressions (at least until a few years ago), 2) new international norms borne from the increasing horror of industrialized war, particularly in Europe, and 3) nuclear weapons. The last may be the most important, by the simple fact of making great power wars unthinkable.

But if we grant the premise that the US security apparatus is a historically unique force for good, then the question is how to preserve that goodness. This gets to the nub of my disagreement with Marshall and his worldview.

Because whatever positive character there is in the US security apparatus, surely the quickest way to erase it would be to remove all transparency, oversight, and accountability. It would be folly to assume that just because it's our creeping police state then it will all work out. Our own history ought to put that idea to bed forever. (As Dan Drezner aptly wrote, "The last time I trusted intelligence bureaucracies and political leaders that the system was working was the run-up to the Iraq war. Never again.")

This is what I find so troubling about Marshall's overt self-identification with the state, his naked suspicion of Snowden, and his blithe condemnation of Manning ("far graver insubordination...incalculably more widespread consequences"). Because from my perspective the greatest threat to whatever positive aspects there are to the US security apparatus is lawless behavior at the top.

On the one hand we have some young, idealistic people who leaked classified programs because they believed they are illegal, or immoral, or otherwise damaging to the fabric of society; and on the other we have the former President, former Vice-President, former Secretary of State, and former Secretary of Defense all guilty of admitted war crimes, living freely and unpunished. It's obvious to me which one is the greater threat to peace and security.

No comments:

Post a Comment