Thursday, May 26, 2016

Whistleblower; traitor; none of the above?

An op-ed in today's New York Times argues that because former NSA contractor Edward Snowden acted in the "overriding public interest" in leaking top secret documents revealing NSA surveillance activities, he should be allowed to raise a "public interest defense" were he to return to the United States to face outstanding criminal charges for violating the Espionage Act. The author argues that "the least the law should do is take full account of the whistle-blower’s intentions."
 Snowden (not to be confused with Thoreau, Ghandi, or King)

I sometimes think I am the only person I've met who's willing to say that Snowden has done both good and harm. Undeniably, his revelations about NSA's legally dubious bulk collection programs have been of considerable public service; it forced the Obama administration to far greater openness about the federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's decisions regarding NSA's secret activities, and indeed the court itself acknowledged that Snowden's unauthorized release of its earlier decisions "engendered considerable public interest and debate" and agreed that further authorized declassification of its rulings would likewise "contribute to an informed debate." The subsequent action by Congress this year to end NSA's bulk telephony metadata collection program would almost certainly never occurred absent Snowden's decision to go public.

But many of Snowden's other leaks have been reckless and gratuitous, failing to make any moral or legal distinction between legitimate and properly secret SIGINT activities—such as intercepting and deciphering the communications of foreign diplomats or terrorist military units such as those of the Taliban in northwest Pakistan—versus the legally suspect and intrusive violations of Americans' own privacy by their government at home.

At the base of all this is the fact that Snowden's intentions—which the Times writer says ought to be taken into account in considering his guilt or innocence—are, like those of all whistleblowers, more complex than they want to present. Snowden is not a traitor in the strict legal meaning of the term, but his decision to place himself under the protection of Vladimir Putin's Russia was a morally disastrous, and morally obtuse, one.

All whistleblowers are egotists, but Snowden is definitely at the far end of the spectrum.

Snowden and his collaborator Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian have sophomorically and self-righteously insisted that any monitoring of any communications by the US government is a threat to "internet freedom" and "intellectual exploration and creativity" everywhere; Greenwald has arrogantly added that anyone who justifies NSA's foreign intelligence-gathering is merely sycophantically "venerating" and meekly obedient to "institutional authority" and the "establishment elite." (Whereas he and Snowden are courageously engaging in "radical dissent" from it.)

And I have been surprised how few of Snowden's champions even feel the need to address the moral questions about his own actions and intentions. Snowden sought out his job as an NSA contractor with the deliberate intention of gaining access to documents he planned from the outset to steal and reveal. He not only violated his oath in so doing but, much worse, duped 20 of his co-workers into giving him their passwords, which he claimed he needed in connection with his duties as a computer systems administrator. Most of those co-workers whom he betrayed were subsequently fired (and presumably also lost their security clearances, thus permanently ending their careers). This personal act of betrayal bespeaks a callousness and superiority that I for one find deeply disturbing.

Civil disobedience is a moral right of all citizens in a democracy, but Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King and other moral giants who understood what was at stake recognized that part of the duty of those who defy the law in the name of what they see as a higher moral calling is a willingness to take the consequences society imposes on those who do disobey the law: indeed it was to point out the evil of the law as it exists that they were prepared to do so.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Trumpian Personality Disorder

"I'm not a psychiatrist, but there's something wrong with the guy."

That observation about you-know-who the other day from a former top aide to John McCain prompted me to look up the actual definition of "narcissistic personality disorder."

I'm not a psychiatrist, either, but it's pretty hard to escape the conclusion that it's not just a figure of speech when people refer to him as a narcissist.

According to the Mayo Clinic, here's how to tell if you have it:
If you have narcissistic personality disorder, you may come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious. You often monopolize conversations. You may belittle or look down on people you perceive as inferior. You may feel a sense of entitlement — and when you don't receive special treatment, you may become impatient or angry. You may insist on having "the best" of everything — for instance, the best car, athletic club or medical care.
At the same time, you have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. To feel better, you may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make yourself appear superior.
It also notes the characteristic of "grandiosity," i.e. believing in one's greatness without any supporting evidence — an excellent example of which was Trump's remarkable insistence that even though he dodged the draft during the Vietnam War (first by claiming student deferments while serving the nation studying finance at the Wharton School, then by claiming a physical deferment, supposedly because of bone spurs on his heels), "I felt that I was in the military in the true sense," having been packed off to a military-themed prep school as a rowdy teenager.

Yes, except for that small detail about people shooting at you and trying to kill you, attending a private boarding school in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, is exactly like serving in the army in Vietnam.

Psychiatrists note that those who suffer from NPD basically have never outgrown the infantile perception that they are at the center of the universe. As Trump himself told his biographer Michael D'Antonio:

 "When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I'm basically the same. The temperament is not that different."

Out of the mouths of babes.