Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Monday, June 10, 2013

One-Eyed Whistle Blower

When no one trusts anyone, paranoia sells and produces “heroes” like 29-year-old Edward Snowden, who is being hailed by the self-selected morally superior for revealing, in the words of his sponsor Glenn Greenwald, that the “US government is building this massive spying apparatus aimed at its own population.”

That this is not even remotely true seems to matter not at all, as the White House and Congress struggle to explain how surveillance works with safeguards of a FISA court to limit intrusion on Americans who have not been in contact with suspicious foreign sources. (If they had been aggressively bugging the Tsamaev brothers, might we have been spared the Boston bombings?)

Now in Hong Kong, Snowden has taken his conscience out of criminal reach, counting on odds that the US will not try to extradite him to avoid prolonging debate on the issue, but that does not make him a First Amendment hero. In times of moral darkness, a one-eyed whistle blower is no king.

JeffreyToobin observes in the New Yorker: “The American government, and its democracy, are flawed institutions. But our system offers legal options to disgruntled government employees and contractors. They can take advantage of federal whistle-blower laws; they can bring their complaints to Congress; they can try to protest within the institutions where they work. But Snowden did none of this. Instead, in an act that speaks more to his ego than his conscience, he threw the secrets he knew up in the air—and trusted, somehow, that good would come of it. We all now have to hope that he’s right.”

Now we learn about ego-driven squabbles at the Guardian over publishing Snowden’s scoop that tend to confirm the motivation of all involved.

Right on cue, Daniel Ellsberg who made public the Pentagon Papers in 1971 shows up to proclaim that the US has fallen into an "abyss" of total tyranny but that Snowden's revelations offer "the unexpected possibility of a way up and out of the abyss."

Those of us who recall those days can testify to the legal process back then that the New York Times and other publications had to go through to publish details not about the government’s current activities but a long retrospective about the Vietnam War that a self-questioning government itself had conducted.

Ellsberg himself was eventually justified for his whistle-blowing, but nostalgia should not conflate his with Snowden’s.

After a lifetime in journalism, I cherish the First Amendment but it does not come with the right to what Oliver Wendell Holmes long ago called yelling fire in a crowded theater.
 
Especially when the theater is full of those trying to prevent a fire.

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