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Where TIME Lost the Plot on Snowden and Spying

BY Nick Judd | Friday, June 14 2013

Michael Scherer doesn't seem to have time for allegations of government misconduct. Rather, it's the bits and bytes of an online political philosophy that attracts his imagination, an Internet culture typified by the 2.3 million Reddit users who logged in last month. His recent article in TIME Magazine takes shaky steps towards the idea that there is a culture of technologically savvy twentysomethings who are "challenging" to a stable democracy.

This is not incisive commentary on the zeitgeist of young America, this is the construction of a folk devil. I said so in a previous piece, and he has emailed me to defend his ideas.

"There have been leakers before, and there will be leakers after. My point is that those in the government set on preventing the leaks now face a distinct and identifiable threat in this group of young technologists, working in government, who believe, in good faith, in a set of ideals that conflict with current law," he wrote to me in an email. "And that there are experiences and information sources that bind them together."

Scherer says it seems I take objection to his usage of the word "geek." I don't. The central thrust of my rebuttal to his TIME cover story is that freedom of information and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure are not radical ideas, nor are they necessarily in conflict with current law. Not that there's anything wrong with obscure geekdom, but those values are not the province of obscure geekdom. They are the province of a country that has a Freedom of Information Act, a constitutional protection from unreasonable search and seizure, and a well-intentioned if clearly inadequate set of checks and balances on secret surveillance.

Scherer wants to have it both ways: His post cites polls that show the country is divided in its response to Snowden's behavior, yet he describes people who sympathize with the former government contractor as somehow dangerous. The fact of the matter is that the Internet culture Scherer describes is far more pervasive than is convenient for his flawed thesis — all those Reddit users; the seven million people who contacted their members of Congress demanding the end of the SOPA and PIPA bills — and is utterly divorced from a willingness to break the law.

Furthermore, It is bizarre to prejudge someone who says he is blowing the whistle on perceived fraud and abuse and presume he is motivated by anything other than perceiving fraud and abuse.

It's possible we don't yet know what motivated Snowden to leak. But if a person's preferred subreddit has any relevance to the likelihood they'll spill secrets, Scherer will need to do a much better job of proving it than he has so far.

What's in conflict with current law is the willingness to leak. That's a totally different conversation than the one you might have about whether or not someone cares about a right to privacy. That willingness is not just informed by whether or not someone is a free-information geek. There are also the periodic leaks of sensitive information to the press that is clearly in the administration's best interest, for example, and go completely without investigation, which implies a double standard. There's a willingness to tolerate risk, which Snowden has discussed.

And there's also, you know, whether or not the NSA is keeping track of who every American calls and how long they talk. Authorized in secret by a court that won't make its opinions available for public view and never refuses a government request. And whether the NSA then refuses to fess up about it until forced by an embarrassing public disclosure. Which, it seems pretty clear, is what just happened.

That might be important to keep in mind.

"I'm no different from anybody else. I don't have special skills. I'm just another guy who sits there day to day in the office," Snowden told The Guardian. Scherer reused that quote, but only half of the quote, moving next to the more vehemently activist Aaron Swartz. But Swartz's information-should-be-free agenda wasn't where Snowden was going.

"I'm just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what's happening and goes, 'This is something that's not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong,'" Snowden went on to say, "And I'm willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of them and say, 'I didn't change these, I didn't modify the story. This is the truth; this is what's happening. You should decide whether we need to be doing this.'"

The future of civil liberties in this country hinges more on whether or not Snowden's claims elevate him to the level of "whistleblower" than on whether he is a geek. So maybe we should keep our attention there. My previous post focused on Snowden's congruity with other people who spent time inside the national security apparatus, believed what they saw to be unlawful, and have been found in due course to have been right. Scherer says he's familiar with that history, but included little to none of it in his work. Do we really care if Snowden might enjoy a copy of, say, Cory Doctorow's dystopian young-adult novel, Little Brother?

"... [I]t is still valid," Scherer says, "to describe a distinct community of people who share these ideas, much as Julian Assange has done in describing young people who have been educated by the Internet."

Well, no, it isn't. It smacks of absolutism, akin to saying all anti-war protesters are Communists and Muslims are radical extremists. It's curious that the author of TIME's front-page cover story is trying so hard to defend, of all his many assertions, the idea that Snowden was motivated not by any perceived government misdeed but by his membership in a group of people Scherer takes thousands of words to demonize as a threat to national security.

Scherer has detailed the far fringe of a cultural movement that has no causal connection to his news hook, which is that the NSA has been spying on millions of Americans and then telling Congress it is doing no such thing. It baffles me that he insists on creating a new hacker mythology when sitting right there, right in front of him, are credible claims that the American national security apparatus needs a long-overdue overhaul.

Michael, doesn't it occur to you that maybe, just a little bit, you've buried the lede?

* * *

Here is Michael's email to me:
Hey Nick,

I saw your post on my story, and I wanted to respond.

First, you seem to have read my story as dismissive of the online community I describe--"young, radical, deviant and disconnected." I agree with the first two adjectives, but not the second two, and I don't think my article argued that this group was "deviant" or "disconnected." They are radical, however, in the way that Snowden described. They believe in breaking the law, which is challenging in a democratic society. But there is also a long tradition of civil disobedience in the United States, and I did not intend for my story to pass moral judgement on their actions.

You seem to object to my use of the word "geek." It is a word that hackers and online communities use to describe themselves. (It's a word that I use to describe myself in political contexts.) I did not mean it pejoratively, but rather as a shorthand, colorful way of describing the technologist culture. But readers can look at the story and decide for themselves whether I was successful.

As for your larger point, that I didn't know about the history of debate over the NSA, I can assure you that I did know. I have written many times about both NSA and the Church Committee, and years back I did a profile of James Bamford for Salon.

You argue that I am the victim "of a logical fallacy." To wit: "Snowden the leaker of NSA secrets can't be a function of his particular time and place. People have been leaking NSA secrets of exactly this nature since before Snowden was even alive."

I frankly don't follow your logic here. There were anti-war protesters and intellectual traditions before the Vietnam War, but that does not logically prevent someone from describing the anti-war protests of the late-1960s and early 1970s as a specific community with a clear set of ideals that rose up in a particular time and place. In the same way, it is clear that concerns about the surveillance state, tyranny, information freedom and the NSA have been around long before 4chan, Reddit and the Cypherpunks. Yet it is still valid to describe a distinct community of people who share these ideas, much as Julian Assange has done in describing young people who have been educated by the Internet.

There have been leakers before, and there will be leakers after. My point is that those in the government set on preventing the leaks now face a distinct and identifiable threat in this group of young technologists, working in government, who believe, in good faith, in a set of ideals that conflict with current law. And that there are experiences and information sources that bind them together.

Finally, I think there are important differences between my story and David Brooks' column this week, but I guess you are free to disagree.

Hope that helps. If you want to post any of this as a comment from me at the end of your article, please feel free.

Michael Scherer
TIME

Sent from my iPad