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Time for change

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Edward Snowden on the Meaning of Patriotism

For his leaking of classified government documents, Edward Snowden has widely been accused of being a traitor to the United States (including by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Speaker of the House John Boehner), and charged with felonies punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

Consideration of the history and character of those who call Snowden a traitor makes it clear what their motives are. Secretary Gates’ primary focus as Director of the CIA under President Reagan was to manipulate intelligence to provide propaganda in support of Reagan’s ideology and thereby facilitate U.S. support of right wing Central American governments and paramilitaries, which had brutal and fatal consequences for the people of El Salvador and Nicaragua. As the most visible leader of a political Party that almost exclusively serves the interests of the wealthy and powerful, at the expense of everyone else, John Boehner’s castigation of Snowden makes perfect sense.

The meaning of patriotism

In a recent interview with Katrina vanden Heuval, Editor and Publisher of The Nation, Snowden was asked how he defines patriotism. In my opinion, Snowden’s response is especially instructive and valuable because of the clear distinction it makes between acts that benefit a country’s government vs. acts that benefit its people:

What defines patriotism, for me, is the idea that one rises to act on behalf of one’s country. As I said before, that’s distinct from acting to benefit the government – a distinction that’s increasingly lost today. You’re not patriotic just because you back whoever’s in power today or their policies. You’re patriotic when you work to improve the lives of the people of your country, your community and your family…

People sometimes say I broke an oath of secrecy – one of the early charges leveled against me. But it’s a fundamental misunderstanding, because there is no oath of secrecy for people who work in the intelligence community…. You are asked to take an oath, and that’s the oath of service. The oath of service is not to secrecy, but to the Constitution – to protect it against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That’s the oath that I kept… When we see something wrong, when we witness our government engaging in serious crimes, abusing power, engaging in massive historic violations of the Constitution of the United States, we have to speak out or we are party to that bad action.

How our government’s war on whistleblowers threatens our democracy

So why all the animosity and charges directed against Snowden by our government? Snowden explains:

When governments go too far to punish people for actions that are dissent rather than a real threat to the nation, they risk delegitimizing not just their systems of justice, but the legitimacy of the government itself… The government would assert that individuals who are aware of serious wrongdoing in the intelligence community should bring their concerns to the people most responsible for that wrongdoing, and rely on those people to correct the problems that those people themselves authorized. Going all the way back to Daniel Ellsberg, it is clear that the government is not concerned with damage to national security, because in none of these cases was there damage. At the trial of Chelsea Manning, the government could point to no case of specific damage that had been caused by the massive revelation of classified information. The charges are a reaction to the government’s embarrassment more than genuine concern about these activities, or they would substantiate what harms were done. We’re now more than a year since my NSA revelations, and despite numerous hours of testimony before Congress, despite tons of off-the-record quotes from anonymous officials who have an ax to grind, not a single US official, not a single representative of the United States government, has ever pointed to a single case of individualized harm caused by these revelations…

A political decision has been made not to irritate the intelligence community. The spy agencies are really embarrassed, they’re really sore – the revelations really hurt their mystique… The surveillance revelations bring them back to Big Brother kind of narratives, and they don’t like that at all. The Obama administration almost appears as though it is afraid of the intelligence community.

This tendency of autocratic governments to lash out against those who reveal things that embarrass them, to escape their own embarrassment by charging the whistleblower with “treason” or violating and impairing “national security”, is not new. History is chock full of such things. In fact, it is the rule rather than the exception.

Those who believe that the United States is immune to this sort of thing are naïve. Unfortunately, with oligarchic control of our national news media, the situation in our country has become progressively worse in recent years.

The charges against Edward Snowden represent the 7th time that the Obama administration has used the Espionage Act of 1917 to punish government workers who shared information with the press. Prior to that, there had been only four such instances since the Act was enacted in 1917, the most well-known being the prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers. In some cases the Obama administration has also gone after the press for publishing the information.

The purpose of the Whistleblower Protection Act is to enable government workers to bring government wrongdoing to public notice without fear of reprisal. As such, it serves to protect the American people against government abuse and is therefore an important part of our democratic system. Without the protection of the Act, revelation of government wrongdoing by government employees can pose great risk to their career and even their freedom. Even with its protection, it takes a good deal of courage for government employees to accuse their government of serious misdeeds. Consequently, the progressive tendency of our government to ignore the Act has posed a substantial threat to our democracy. I’ll conclude this post with a comment by former U.S. Foreign Service employee Peter van Buren, on how our government’s war on whistleblowers threatens our democracy:

When everything is classified any attempt to report on anything threatens to become a crime; unless, of course, the White House decides to leak to you...

For everyone else working to create Jefferson’s informed citizenry, it works very differently… Times reporter Jim Risen is now the subject of subpoenas by the Obama administration demanding he name his sources as part of {an} Espionage Act case… Risen was a journalist doing his job, and he raises this perfectly reasonable question: “Can you have a democracy without aggressive investigative journalism? I don’t believe you can, and that’s why I’m fighting.” Meanwhile, the government calls him their only witness to a leaker’s crime.

One thing at stake in the case is the requirement that journalists aggressively pursue information important to the public, even when that means heading into classified territory. If almost everything of importance (and much that isn’t) is classified, then journalism as we know it may become… well, illegal.

Posted by Time for change | Fri Oct 31, 2014, 04:04 PM (25 replies)
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