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Edward Snowden and the Emperor's Real Set of Clothes

by Peter Rodman

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©copyright 2015 Peter Rodman

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. . . a man who has not, at the very least, been sentenced to imprisonment does little credit to the land of his fathers.

Anatole France

A Mummer's Tale

Table of Contents

The irresponsible excesses of conscience

The crime and the criminal

What's to be done? oh, what's to be done?

Author contact information

The irresponsible excesses of conscience

It's hard to know how to classify Edward Snowden's actions. "Patriotic" is too limited and imperialistic of a word. Patriotism implies sacrifice driven by the love of a political entity—usually one's country. But patriotism towards country US can often be construed as an attack on country UN (the country variables are random, and not meant as any sort of editorial comment.) An inspiring patriot in one country is often a rabid enemy to a neighboring country.

Snowden's actions transcend political boundaries. It's easy, and dishonest, to force them into a political interpretation and say, "Snowden is a traitor to the U.S.," but, realistically, the centipedes beneath the rocks Snowden overturned are threatening to the toes of many more countries than his own. His actions might have been patriotic, but taken as a whole, I would have to call them basic, uncommon, decency.

The United States is a country of comfortable delusion. Generally, we are sluggish, uninformed of international affairs, and complacent about the complicated butcher shop we call our government. The government is so large and entrenched, with the same unelected employees working away through administration after administration, that there is a lulling sameness to life election after election. Yes, a new president or congress can change small things: close a small fraction of military bases, privatize the post office, make the lives of welfare recipients grimmer; but the generals still show up for work, the mail gets delivered, and welfare case workers still poke the same data into their computers. Nothing changes.

The country is deluded because the (white) majority often never comes into serious conflict with the governors. They believe they have freedom. Unarmed black men are shot dead by policemen with distressing regularity. Nine black church congregants are killed by a racist known to the authorities as dangerous. Routine cell phone conversations are intercepted by local police authorities without a warrant and with no connection to any crime. Money and personal property can be confiscated by law enforcement authorities with the suspicion of drug activity, but with no evidence, no arrest, and no oversight or right to appeal. All computer mail data are captured regardless of their pertinence to any investigation. The majority is never personally bothered by government excesses, so, like a dog who has never reached the end of his tether, it believes it is free.

In the fable of the Emperor's New Clothes, the emperor is deceived by con men into believing he has fine new clothes that can only be seen by the intelligent and tasteful. Neither the emperor, his minions, nor his subjects want to be seen as stupid, so they all pretend to see the clothes—until a child, unaware he is supposed to be dishonest, blurts out, "the king is naked."

In the U.S., we prefer to think our emperor is naked. We believe we can see everything, so everything is okay. It took a person of profound moral courage to tell us, "The emperor has clothes, they're invisible, and there are shit-stains in his underwear."

It outrages us to have our delusions exposed, and the deluded resent the teacher—so much so that they look to the men who have been conning them for comfort and an easy explanation. They want a solution that will repair the delusion. So Socrates had to be poisoned and Galileo needed to face burning at the stake until he agreed to lie. Snowden? Well, what is the penalty for treason in the U.S.? Oh, right, death.

The Nazi atrocities during World War II caused an upheaval in the way humanity viewed war and the responsibilities of the individual. Previously, it was unthinkable to blame soldiers in a time of war for obeying orders and following laws and regulations. Disobedience was the punishable offense. Thus, Benedict Arnold switched sides during the American Revolutionary War, and is reviled as a traitor; Nathan Hale spied against the British, and was hung as a traitor; Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of being a German spy and deported as a traitor; and Mohandas Gandhi's activities in India were certainly traitorous to England.

The international war crimes trials at Nuremberg following WWII began the awkward stumbling towards the idea that obedience to one's country may be treason to humanity. Generally, the leaders or proponents and creators of the atrocities were convicted, while underlings who did the actual beating, shooting, hanging and gassing were not. Those convicted were enthusiastic in committing their crimes, either because of their comfortable cruelty, personal prejudices, or patriotism; had they refused to act, they likely would have been executed as traitors to Germany. But refusal was the last thing on their minds.

The idea of a responsibility to humanity is not a popular one. Quite simply, treason is too widespread and useful a tool for governments to control their people. All governments use it. Governments never look beyond their own borders when they consider their citizens' actions.

When William Calley was court-martialed for the Vietnamese My Lai massacre the killing was not the issue; rather the choice of victims was the problem. Had the victims been enemy combatants, there would have been little issue with the killings. In war there is a sliding scale of wrong when it comes to human slaughter, and Calley's actions were only considered (by the U.S.) as a disobedience to the regulations and traditions of the U.S. military. Humanity? It never came up.

There is a very good reason countries refuse to consider humanity. Many actions of Country A (not just war) are inimical to Countries B through Q. Considering of the effects of an action on the world would paralyze a country's government, and likely lead to the replacement of the representatives in a democratic country.

I know a retired combat veteran who is fond of stating, "I would kill anyone my country tells me to." States have replaced clans and tribes as objects of loyalty in developed countries. Citizens of those states expect their government's loyalty to them in exchange for the citizen's patriotism, and a world view at the expense of the national interest is considered a betrayal of that loyalty by many.

Most U.S. citizens probably consider violating an oath of secrecy in an attempt to safeguard their rights and the rights of other people worldwide to be treason. They don't want to remove the bandage and see the pus. If you break the law, you get punished, good intentions be damned. Conscience has no place in your actions, once you've given your word.

The crime and the criminal

Recently, the U.S. Federal computers were hacked and personal information on twenty-two million government employees was stolen. Before China was even identified as the culprit, before the government knew how it was done, we heard on the news, "(Mumble) (mumble) data breech (mumble) (mumble) (mumble) Edward Snowden." This information came from the same people who have lied to us for years about their activities. No doubt they have now had a change of heart and are telling the truth, rather than choosing a scapegoat.

What about the damage his leaks have caused? Well, what about it? what is it?

For at least a decade, the National Security Agency has been telling any one who asked that they do not do a mass interception of telephone calls. Such an activity, without a warrant, would be against the law and violate the constitutional rights of everyone involved. Snowden's leaks proved that such interceptions of all phone calls, had been going on for over a decade, and that they had produced no useful intelligence in that time. Congress subsequently forbade the NSA from such interceptions. So Snowden's crime led to the exposure and halt of gross criminal activity by the NSA. Clearly, this is something the NSA needs to be forgiven for, and for which Edward Snowden needs to be punished.

The NSA has also stated for years that it intercepts and examines only international e-mail for possible terrorist activity. This is a rather ingenuous lie, exposed by Edward Snowden. An e-mail I send through Yahoo or Google mail to my friend Molly two miles away is safe from scrutiny, because it isn't international, right? Except . . . no.

Large providers handling huge electronic traffic have servers all over the world to which they routinely shunt activity when local lines become clogged—such as in the daytime; or at night. If my e-mail is shunted from Sacramento to Lahore, Pakistan, then back, it has become an international e-mail, and is intercepted. The e-mail traveled 15,898 miles, plus the two miles from our houses.

All these e-mails are not reviewed for subversion by humans, that would be impossible. Computers do it, checking them against a list of suspicious words. The ominous e-mails are then forwarded to humans for judgment. The list of suspicious words is rumored to be 22,000 words long. Considering that the average adult American's vocabulary is between 20,000 and 35,000 words, that's still a rather broad net. One would hope that the words, "a," "an," "the," and "and" have been left off the list to save the NSA a little work.

And it isn't only words the NSA is looking for in our e-mails. Subversive photographs are also intercepted and scanned, especially the nude ones. The possibility of terrorist activity being planned in naked pictures is clearly very real and extremely subtle, often requiring the photographs to be passed around to everyone in the NSA offices for evaluation and interpretation. Random hackers who do this are prosecuted and jailed; the NSA was not. Edward Snowden also revealed this practice.

Were Snowden's leaks responsible for the rumor (since investigated and found false) that the U.S. is intercepting/bugging friendly foreign leaders' cell phone activity? Supposedly, the NSA listened in on Angela Merkel's cell. No one seems to know where the rumor came from. It may have just been a prank, that worked, to embarrass the U.S. So the President went on record denying and forbidding the practice. Probably a good idea.

Do the U.S.'s allies spy on our government? Probably. Perhaps we could create a kind of national security agency to detect and expose (diplomatically ask for a recall of) the various British, French, German and Israeli spooks operating in this country. Just to keep things even.

Finally, Mr. Snowden helped me out personally. I say personally because I sincerely doubt whether an organization that has been intercepting my phone calls, e-mails, and nekkid pictures is going to stop doing it simply because they've been told to quit. But he did give me a piece of information I've been able to utilize for my own computer security.

Passwords are a computer user's headache. Most that are easy to remember come under the heading of "weak," because they use common words and are short. They can be cracked in minutes or seconds by a password program that can try millions of possibilities in minutes. It turns out that there is a secret to a good password: length.

Snowden suggests using an easy-to-remember passphrase. The example he gave was, "Queen Elizabeth is 100% hot!" It is 28 characters long, with capital letters, numbers, spaces, punctuation, and a symbol; it has a meaning, but not a lot of sense, so is impossible to guess, yet the phrase sticks in the mind.

By the way, the moment Snowden used that phrase as an example, it was entered in every password-cracking program in the world. Should you use it, your computer will have no security. Create your own passphrase. I have replaced all my passwords with passphrases I can remember, but which no one outside of a lunatic asylum could guess. The idea of a passphrase may have been around for a long time, but it took Edward Snowden to clue me in.

What's to be done? oh, what's to be done?

But there are thousands and thousands of stolen documents still "out there," with the capacity to further embarrass the U.S., and possibly endanger American spy lives. What about the harm Snowden's leaks may yet do? How can we ever guard against future harm? The answer is actually rather simple.

Ask him.

Oh, the NSA won't get the documents back, and even if they did, they wouldn't trust that no copies were made. But if the U.S. knew what had been leaked, they could correct the more embarrassing information before it was revealed, and reveal it themselves, giving the world and the American people the illusion that our spies are now more open, giving, and loving: that we are wearing fresh underwear.

But why would Snowden tell us what he had leaked? First we'd have to capture him, and who knows how many years of waterboarding it would take to get false information out of him? It seems an insurmountable problem.

Perhaps the president could pardon him. It wouldn't take any new legal maneuvers or profound philosophical gymnastics; it's been done before. The president could even reuse the speech Gerald Ford used to pardon Richard Nixon—just change the names. It would pardon Snowden for past crimes—if any—yet still allow authorities to prosecute him for future crimes should he decide to massacre 85 Girl Scouts, or steal a bag of M&Ms.

Once home, ask the poor bastard what information is loose in the world, then fix the damage. The impression I've got is that Snowden likes the U.S., and that he even thinks his old job of spying is a good idea; his problem seems to be with totalitarian measures being used against a reputedly free people. Maybe the idea of forcing the end of the intelligence community's abuses is something that would appeal to him. The history of the civil rights movement demonstrates that a man with a conscience may cause less chaos working within the government (as did Lyndon Johnson forcing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965) than against it (as did Martian Luther King forcing the abolition of segregation.) But a man of conscience must act to change wrongs; change is not painful, resistance to change is. The U.S. will continue to be embarrassed by Snowden's leaks, not because he is a traitor or a liar, but because the NSA is wrong, and behaving criminally. Who, exactly, is subverting the United States? If you betray a subversive organization, are you a traitor?

I don't know Mr. Snowden. I've never met him, and had never heard of him before he did what he did. But I do know that in the last two years the only public figure who has never lied to me is Edward Snowden. The only public figure who has demonstrated his concern for my personal welfare is Edward Snowden. The U.S. government may never recover from the irreparable good he has caused.

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Everything that I did in my life that was worthwhile I caught hell for.

--Earl Warren

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