I’ve been traveling and just now read the mid-January piece in The New Republic by Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton. The ostensible purpose of the article is to cast doubt on the motives of Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Julian Assange, but Wilentz’s hatchet job (and yes I use that term quite consciously) is so absurd that I almost wonder if he actually supports these men and hijacked TNR’s site to bolster their fanbase. The two takeaways from this episode are (1) no matter how open-and-shut the threat of an overreaching government, there will always be court intellectuals to defend it, and (2) Ron Paul is at the center of the opposition to Leviathan.
Wilentz’s piece is long, but I encourage you to read it if only to understand the background of these three men and how they came together in the struggle against the surveillance State. (This is partly why I tongue-in-cheek suggested that Wilentz might secretly be rooting for these guys; I don’t see how anyone could read the piece and end up feeling better about the NSA.) It’s only noteworthy to see just how flimsy Wilentz’s smears (and yes that’s what they are) need to be. For example, check this out:
By 1999, a 16-year-old Snowden had moved with his family from North Carolina to Maryland. He had dropped out of high school in his sophomore year and become enamored with computers. Snowden spent increasingly large swaths of his time on Ars Technica, a technology news and information website for self-described “alpha geeks.” Soon, he was posting regularly in the site’s public chat rooms under the user name “TheTrueHOOHA.” Snowden, it seems, mostly engaged in postadolescent banter about sex and Internet gaming—and occasionally mused about firearms. “I have a Walther P22,” he wrote. “It’s my only gun, but I love it to death.” The Walther P22, a fairly standard handgun, is not especially fearsome, but Snowden’s affection for it hinted at some of his developing affinities.
The tone of the above epitomizes the entire piece. Go ahead and read the whole thing–there are a handful of legitimately surprising bits, like Snowden complaining in January 2009 about the New York Times and wikileaks releasing classified information–but most of it is pure mockery and guilt-by-association. For example, here’s how Wilentz tries to make his readers less trusting of Glenn Greenwald:
It was in his pro bono work that Greenwald discovered his true passion: defending the civil liberties of extremists.
In several cases over a five-year span, Greenwald represented Matthew Hale, the head of the Illinois-based white-supremacist World Church of the Creator, which attracted a small core of violently inclined adherents. In one case, Greenwald defended Hale against charges that he had solicited the murder of a federal judge. Hale was eventually convicted when the federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, produced the FBI informant with whom Hale had arranged the killing. Greenwald’s other clients included the neo-Nazi National Alliance, who were implicated in an especially horrible crime. Two white supremacists on Long Island had picked up a pair of unsuspecting Mexican day laborers, lured them into an abandoned warehouse, and then clubbed them with a crowbar and stabbed them repeatedly. The day laborers managed to escape, and when they recovered from their injuries, they sued the National Alliance and other hate groups, alleging that they had inspired the attackers. Greenwald described the suit as a dangerous attempt to suppress free speech by making holders of “unconventional” views liable for the actions of others. His use of a euphemism like “unconventional” to describe white nationalists was troubling, but on First Amendment grounds, he had a strong case and he made it successfully.
Greenwald’s pro bono work is not evidence of anything more than a principled lawyer providing hateful people with constitutionally guaranteed counsel.
You see how this Wilentz operates? He gives salacious details of the hateful people Greenwald defended as a pro bono lawyer, but then assures us he (Wilentz) doesn’t want that to color our opinion of Greenwald in any way. No no, just adding some colorful background; it was either the neo-Nazi clients, or a discussion of Greenwald’s interest in lacrosse. Wilentz probably flipped a coin when picking the topic of that paragraph.
But now Wilentz brings out the big guns: linking Greenwald to that weirdo Ron Paul:
Greenwald had identified a vehicle for a political realignment: the presidential candidacy of the old libertarian warhorse Ron Paul. In November 2007, Greenwald called Paul “as vigilant a defender of America’s constitutional freedoms … as any national figure in some time.” He acknowledged that “there is at least something in Paul’s worldview for most people to strongly dislike, even hate,” and he described Paul as “an anti-abortion extremist” and “near the far end” of the right’s stance on immigration policy. Still, he believed Paul to be a rare truth-teller, prepared to buck a corrupt bipartisan consensus.
This portrayal required highly selective political reasoning, not to mention a basic ignorance of U.S. history. Paul, a longtime supporter of the John Birch Society, is a quintessential paleoconservative, holding prejudices and instincts that predate the post–World War II conservative movement founded by William F. Buckley Jr. and others.
Then of course, Wilentz quotes from the Ron Paul newsletters. This is somehow supposed to prove that Glenn Greenwald has bad judgment and can’t read US history–even though Wilentz himself quotes Greenwald as saying there is something in Paul’s worldview that most people will hate.
So let’s see Prof. Wilentz, there are two hypotheses here: One is that the gay Greenwald (who was a progressive darling in his attacks on the Bush Administration and only turned on Obama once it was clear he was implementing Bush’s third term) really deep down hates traditionally persecuted groups and all this blather about the NSA is a smokescreen, OR he recognizes that the real danger today is the NSA and the rest of the apparatus of the Empire. I mean, it’s almost as if some people think mass murder and systematic torture is more important than mean quotes culled from decades-old newsletters. What are the chances?!
Now why is Wilentz so upset with these three gentlemen? It’s because they are overreacting. Here is how Wilentz–professor of history, so he should know–thinks problems with Big Government get fixed:
Some of the documents stolen by Edward Snowden have revealed worrisome excesses on the part of the NSA. Any responsible whistle-blower, finding evidence of these excesses, might, if thwarted by her or his superiors, bring the evidence of those specific abuses to the attention of the press, causing a scandal, which would prod Congress and the NSA itself to correct or eliminate the offensive program.
But the above isn’t the path that our irresponsible whistleblowers have taken, according to Wilentz. Instead of calmly reporting the abuses, and forcing the government to reform itself, they make all kinds of wild accusations. I don’t want the present post to get too long, so let me close with just two final examples of just how absurd Wilentz’s piece is:
[Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange] want to spin the meaning of the documents they have released to confirm their animating belief that the United States is an imperial power, drunk on its hegemonic ambitions.
According to the leakers’ own evidence, however, this interpretation is simply not the case. The files leaked so far strongly indicate that the U.S. intelligence system, although in need of major reform, is not recklessly spying on its citizens. The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies found serious problems with the NSA’s data collection, and recommended, among other restrictions, outlawing the NSA’s practice of amassing and storing the phone records of virtually all Americans….
A similar pattern recurs with other supposedly damning documents. Among those cited by The New York Times, in its editorial supporting clemency for Snowden, is one that purportedly proves “the N.S.A. broke federal privacy laws, or exceeded its authority, thousands of times per year, according to the agency’s own internal auditor.” But the Times was drawing on a Washington Post report that failed to say whether the “thousands” of violations amounted to a significant proportion of the total uses of the database, or only a relative handful, within the margin for human error. The Timesalso failed to emphasize that, according to the document, the vast majority those violations, as audited in the first quarter of 2012, were due to simple human or mechanical error and that there was no way of knowing whether the balance involved serious, as opposed to technical, violations of law.
And there you have it, folks. Greenwald et al. would have you believe that there’s this big scary Surveillance State out to get you, that violates its own internal privacy rules thousands of times per year. But Wilentz assures us that the President has recommended that the NSA stop recording information on virtually all Americans’ phone calls, and that for all we know the “thousands” of privacy violations annually are actually a small percentage, when you consider just how much spying is going on.
Is this for real?! I must be a paranoid libertarian.