This week, the rush was on to understand Edward Snowden's character and the conversation in the media quickly broke down in to one camp that holds Snowden up as a hero and another that condemns him as a traitor. Brooke examines that dichotomy and suggests another way to think about Snowden.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE:Many developments on the recent leaks about US government surveillance programs this week, and many – let’s be blunt - reductive observations about the leaker.
KRYSTAL BALL:Edward Snowden, an American hero or government nuisance for leaking those classified NSA documents. Let’s put him through the “spin cycle.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The “spin cycle” rotates irrespective of the value of Snowden’s information. I mean, we don't know, despite the claims of intelligence officials, whether he endangered our national security. We may never know. We still don't know the impact of Army Private Bradley Manning's WikiLeaks leaks three years ago, a huge document dump that revealed much about the inner workings of the State Department. Manning’s trial just began this week, but we passed judgment long ago on his character, his vulnerabilities, his angst.
Now, Snowden's inner life is, as Manning’s was, endlessly evaluated. And whatever your opinion of Snowden, assume it's determined in large part by your view of what he did and where you stand on far bigger issues than his personality quirks, for example, the terrorist threat, the right to privacy, the nature of American democracy. For Congressman Ron Paul-
RON PAUL:To tell the American people the truth is a heroic effort.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And the Government Accountability Project’s Kathleen McClellan-
KATHLEEN MCCLELLAN:It’s very courageous in this climate for anybody to consider making a whistleblowing disclosure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:As for Fox News contributor Andrew Napolitano-
ANDREW NAPOLITANO:I would describe this man as an American hero.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But House Majority *Speaker John Boehner says-
(*corrected, see bottom of transcript)
JOHN BOEHNER: He’s a traitor, and it's a giant violation of the law.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That’s seconded by CNN's Jeffrey Toobin.
JEFFREY TOOBIN:Every 29-year-old who doesn't agree with what the government is doing doesn't get permission to break the law, damage national security and then run off to China.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And squared by retired Colonel Ralph Peters.
RALPH PETERS:And oh, by the way, for treason, as in the case of Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden, you bring back the death penalty.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The corollary to the hero traitor narrative is that of the weirdo misfit. You can catch a whiff of that in this remark by Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski.
SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI:Why does a kid who couldn’t make it through a community college can make 200 grand a year and be exposed to some of our most significant secrets?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Snowden said it was 200,000; it's really about 120,000. You can decide the significance of that. But, he didn't finish college. David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that Snowden is one of the quote, “growing share of young men in their twenties who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.”
Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post, that, quote, “Everything about Edward Snowden is ridiculously cinematic. He is not paranoiac. He is merely narcissistic.” Of course, neither man has ever met him.
EDWARD SNOWDEN:I’m no different from anybody else. I don't have special skills.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Edward Snowden. If his impact on national security is unknown, so too is his impact on how we define ourselves as Americans, but it's worth asking.
EDWARD SNOWDEN:I'm just another guy who sits there day-to-day in the office, watches what’s happening and goes, this is something that’s not our place to decide. The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:“I am neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American,” said Snowden, as he was reportedly showing the South China Morning Post documents that revealed widespread NSA hacking in Hong Kong and mainland China. He said, “The reality is that I have acted at great personal risk to help the public of the world, regardless of whether that public is American, European or Asian.”
A big talking point in the last presidential election was American exceptionalism, the explicit idea, steeped in the implicit assumption of moral superiority, that America is special, that it has a special mission in the world. Newt Gingrich explains.
NEWT GINGRICH:The fact is what makes American exceptionalism different is that we are the only people I know of in history to say power comes directly from God to each one of you. You are personally sovereign. So you’re always a citizen. You are never a subject.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Perhaps Snowden is an American exceptionalist. He says he's just a regular guy, but salt-of-the-earth humility is part of the exceptionalist proposition. A Pew poll released Monday found that 56 percent saw tracking of millions of Americans as an acceptable tool against terrorism. But a CBS poll released Tuesday found that only 38 percent approved of collecting the data of, quote, “ordinary Americans.” The word “ordinary” seems to have made an 18 percent difference. Millions could be anyone, but ordinary is definitely us.
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*In this segment, Brooke incorrectly identified John Boehner as the House Leader. John Boehner is actually the House Majority Speaker.