What Snowden Didn't Know

I was originally going to write a post that started like this: The Los Angeles Times says the administration is considering accepting refugees from Syria:

Two years into a civil war that shows no signs of ending, the Obama administration is considering resettling refugees who have fled Syria, part of an international effort that could bring thousands of Syrians to American cities and towns.

The State Department is “ready to consider the idea,” an official from the department said, if the administration receives a formal request from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, which is the usual procedure.


Maybe the president is feeling guilty. Or maybe not. Michael Totten writes:

What could have been a bloody but short Libyan-style revolution to oust the tyrant Bashar al-Assad has instead metastasized into a grotesque sectarian war between the Sunni Muslim majority and the ruling Alawite minority. … And what could have been a major blow for the West in its cold war against Iran—Syria is Iran’s only state-sized ally in the Middle East—has instead morphed in part into a protracted red-on-red fight between an anti-American state sponsor of terrorism and the anti-American jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, which is fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army against Assad.

So it’s only right to accept one set of hostiles who are fleeing the other set of hostiles and vice-versa, even if both sets of hostiles hate America, because that’s what the political process is programmed to do. When they designed the refugee paradigm, nobody imagined that the refugees and their pursuers could be interchangeable.

In the meantime, Obama told Charlie Rose that nobody understood how hard it is being president. Lee Smith, watching the president describe his dilemmas, wrote:

In an appearance on the Charlie Rose show, the commander in chief told his host, “I’ve said I’m ramping up support for both the political and military opposition. I’ve not specified exactly what we’re doing, and I won’t do so on this show. … Unless you’ve been involved in those conversations,” Obama told Rose, “then it’s kind of hard for you to understand the complexities of the situation.”

For Obama, everything about Syria is complex — its vaunted air defenses, Iran’s massive investment there in men, money, and arms, Russia’s intractable diplomatic position, and especially the rebels themselves.


But what did that illustrate about Obama’s anxieties? I was stumped. Well, that was before I read Roger Simon’s excellent post on What Snowden Knew:

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a brief for Snowden. He seems to be a new form of narcissistic international creep, similar to Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame. I hope he gets dysentery in Ecuador or wherever he winds up.

But he may have done us a favor, putting an exclamation point on the activities of the NSA so there are no doubts. He also has made obvious the utter contempt with which Russia and China treat the Obama administration. (Evidently this was surprising to Dianne Feinstein on Face the Nation Sunday. Go figure.) … this presents an opportunity for dialogue we haven’t had for many years. Who knows if it will happen?

But if it does, I hope it will be intelligent and substantive. These are not easy questions. Good reasons exist for government surveillance.

Most obvious of them is the threat and reality of Islamic terrorism, which, despite the death of bin Laden, does not seem to be going away. Quite the contrary. It appears to be growing rapidly and dangerously….

But suffice it to say I’m not so keen on dismantling, or even much curtailing, the NSA. The IRS perhaps, but not the NSA.

Still, we have to figure out how to balance this.

Roger asks an intelligent question that nobody in power is likely to answer anytime soon.

What Snowden knew was that a large surveillance apparatus existed. And in his (choose one — naivete, malice, treason, idealism), Snowden found someone to help him lay it all out. But now, let’s think about what he didn’t know, or should’ve known but didn’t seem to know.


The first is that the nature of things like going public with secrets will involve countries like China, Cuba, and Russia. Snowden might have thought he was talking to Assange or someone like him. But the toebone’s connected to the shinbone and the shinbone’s connected to China. Them dry bones are all connected to each other, because that’s the way these things work.

The second thing he might not have known is that, in the Life, what you intend doesn’t matter when you’re handling life and death stuff like secrets. Whether you are kind or good, whether you were well-intentioned or malevolent is secondary to the fact that you’re handling radioactive stuff. A certain kind of dynamic just takes over. Being a nice guy doesn’t protect you from the effects of carrying around a bar of plutonium in your pocket, neither do intentions in the secrets game.

The whole thing about the Life is that it poses problems to which there are no clear moral answers. That’s its attraction and that is its damnation. As Roger points out, Snowden may have done us all a favor by exposing the extent of domestic surveillance. On the other hand he could have gotten us all killed. Literally.

In the ideal world, the U.S. government would have provided an exit valve, a legit path for those who want to spill the beans. That’s what the whistleblower pathway is: a place you can go so you don’t have to call Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian. But then that takes us to an equally intractable problem: what Obama doesn’t know.


For openers, he hasn’t twigged to the fact that a boiler needs a safety value, and if he shuts the system of legitimate whistleblowing down, the only exits left are marked “Havana,” “Beijing,” “Moscow,” and “Wikileaks.” What does he think he’s going to achieve by evading or obfuscating legitimate oversight?

But in the nature of things, whistleblowing is probably going to get a whole lot harder after Snowden. And that paradoxically means more Snowdens. More Snowdens or more coverups. Nice choice, but does that make sense?

Does taking refugees in from Syria make sense when you can’t decide whether to win in Syria? Well, no. But that’s how the political system is programmed. It’s not designed to solve problems; it’s not designed to make hard choices. It’s there to protect political interests and to tell stories.

One of the changes that 9/11 wrought is that now we all lead the Life to a greater and lesser degree. We stopped being civilians the instant the second plane hit the Towers. As I wrote many times before, that means we make moral choices. We can choose not to interrogate al-Qaeda suspects, but only at the cost of increasing the danger to ourselves. We can shut down the NSA, but only at the price of accepting blinkers. We can limit the NSA to whatever extent we choose, but we have to be aware we are trading off, like some soldier chafing under body armor, a degree of protection for some amount of convenience.


Me? I would personally not interrogate al-Qaeda suspects too harshly and willingly run the additional risk of having my legs blown off as a consequence. But others may not be as willing. But they’re still treating us like civilians, and Obama’s followers didn’t know or didn’t completely realize that the president was right (see, I agree with him) when he recently said that you can’t have perfect safety and perfect privacy.

Now he tells us. The trouble is, he ran on the opposite message when on campaign.

Then, he said we could have a world without nukes. A new universe of grand bargains. Be a country that the Muslim world would love. Heck, they would even love themselves. A world where you could print money and we’d all be rich. There were no tradeoffs anywhere. And some supporters lapped it up, like they were seeing the Promised Land for the “first time.”

What didn’t we know? We didn’t know it was CGI, a creation of the narrative. That there’s a price for everything. Edward Snowden is in a situation that you — I — should be glad we aren’t in. He’s now opened the box and read the contract with the devil. And it sucks, huh? Sometimes there are no happily-ever-afters when you fall off the tightrope. A little to one side or too much to the other. “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

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