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Why Snowden is no Agee and why it is authoritarian thinking to compare the two

The blog War on the Rocks (of which I had never heard before, but who needs serendipity when you follow eccentrics on Twitter) recently ran a piece by Mark Stout arguing that if Edward Snowden should get clemency, so should Philip Agee. It does so by drawing a bunch of analogies, that are at mostly false equivalences and several times lies by omission. To name a few:

Both divulged huge amounts of classified information that made its way to America’s enemies.

Agee offered a trove of information (including names of CIA operatives) to the KGB (which suspected foul play and declined) and ultimately went to Cuba. This happened in 1973, five years after having left the CIA. He also went on to publish a book naming CIA operatives. Mind you, 1973 was during the Cold War and really scary moments such as the Able Archer 83 scare were still ahead and the Cuban missile crisis was only a decade behind. It is also not far-fetched to claim that several (urban) guerilla wars in Latin America were effectively proxy wars of the Cold War. Snowden provided journalists with a track record of being responsible (Greenwald and Poitras) and who still are US citizens with a massive trove of documents. Which got subsequently shared with mainstream news outlets that also have very diligent with the information they received. Snowden did not go to Moscow until forced to do so by an extradition request of the United States government. Which is conveniently overlooked by many commentators, including Mark Stout. So far there is zero evidence that Putin is keeping him around for other purposes than making the United States lose face in international politics.

The villains and scoundrels in charge of the U.S. government—not to mention their stooges overseas—said that both Snowden and Agee did immense damage to the national security.

So far there is zero actual evidence of Snowden’s revelations doing any damage to the national security of the United States or any of its allies. One could argue that the NSA did enormous damage to the fundamental freedoms of humans, US citizens as well as the rest of the world and as such did the damage to the national security of the United States, not Snowden. Providing an adversary with concrete names of HUMINT assets is incomparable to going to the press with hard evidence of SIGINT programmes run by presumably free democratic states turning the world in a post-Orwellian dystopian nightmare. Remember similar vague claims about Wikileaks’ release of diplomatic cable dispatches? Even though Wikileaks was nowhere as diligent with removing information that could harm real people (it requested the United States Department’s help for that, but that got declined), but as it turned out, none got harmed but the United States standing. There is no reason to believe the even vaguer claims by General Hayden, who only recently lied under oath during a Congressional testimony about the extent of the NSA’s surveillance programmes, in light of the care taken by Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras not to divulge information that could actually harm the United States’ national security. Not to mention that Greenwald and Poitras got Bruce Schneier, one of the world’s foremost IT-security experts on their team.

 Both Snowden and Agee exhibited a tendency to live in countries that had tense relationships with the U.S., but which were impeccably democratic.

As mentioned before, it was not Snowden’s choice to go to Russia. Agee had a choice, Snowden never had. In Agee’s time the number of democratic countries without an extradition treaty with the United States was much lower. In the meantime we have ended up in a situation in which several European countries will extradite their own citizens to the United States on the most specious of claims without batting an eye. The irony is that if the United States had not so doggedly pursued Snowden, he might never have ended up in front of Chinese and Russian interrogators. And even then, Putin’s autocratic Russia is still a few steps up from Castro’s Cuba in the seventies, despite its poor track record on human rights. Or its poor track record on about any metric of governance.

Which gets me to the authoritarian reflexes underlying critiques like this. And by authoritarian I mean Altemeyer’s definition of those (his book The Authoritarians is highly recommended reading), which is:

Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and
traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that
means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalities featuring:
  1. a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;
  2. high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
  3. a high level of conventionalism
And Stout’s piece is just that: authoritarian in thinking. At no point does Stout acknowledge that the United States has overstepped it’s legitimate authority to perform SIGINT. Even if you accept the atrocious US case law that designates non-citizens on non-US-soil subhumans that deserve zero Fourth Amendment protections (which I don’t, as an un-American European), even then you cannot claim that what happens in the name of national security even meets the already overly narrow concepts of privacy in the United States. The bulk collection of meta-data affects not only informational privacy, but also the freedoms of assembly and expression. So it is a First Amendment issue as well. His basic premise is that Snowden violated the rules of secrecy and therefore is in the wrong. In this ‘modest proposal’ he paints Snowden with the same brush as Philip Agee, a Cold War traitor. By and large the whole exercise is an acknowledgement of a complete inability to even consider for a moment that, just maybe, diving head-first in a surveillance state scenario is something incompatible with democratic freedoms. And that we’re on a fast track to become the abyss that we stared into for so long during the Cold War.