On June 5, 2013, Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian newspaper released an article which revealed that the NSA was covertly collecting information on millions of American citizens. The fallout has been profound and, to my knowledge, this is the most significant and substantial debate that the people in the United States have ever had about the largest security/surveillance organization in the world, the NSA. But if you were to watch the mainstream media, you would hardly be aware of the significance of the revelations. Instead, the character assassination of a whistleblower and a journalist has become the modus operandi for beltway journalists. If CNN were your only source for the story, you would know more about Edward Snowden’s girlfriend than you would about the PRISM program and the collusion of Verizon and Google with the NSA.
Part of the media’s campaign has been the relentless accusation of Snowden’s, and even Geenwald’s, criminality. On MSNBC, the coverage has been particularly minatory – here, from medialite – you can see a fear mongering chorus of ‘journalists,’ including Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd (these are the network’s respected ones?), pushing the script of the White House talking points. Considering that Robert Gibbs, the previous White House press secretary, is now a contributor at MSNBC, they wouldn’t have to walk very far to figure out what to say.
But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the media, the Obama administration, and the NSA are in the right – this is an important program, Snowden and Greenwald belong in jail or executed, Americans do not have the right to privacy nor do they even have the right to be aware of what the government does with their information, etc. This does nothing to respond to the fact that on March 12, 2013, James Clapper lied, under oath, during congressional testimony. Wyden ask, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Clapper, “No sir.” Wyden, “It does not?” Clapper, “Not wittingly.” Now, I’ve seen enough congressional testimonies to realize when an intentionally vague word is thrown around in order to provide legal coverage to a witness. But no stretch of that awkward, cringe worthy, “wittingly” will contravene what we now know. The NSA does collect, and “wittingly” collects, data on millions of Americans. Where have been the calls in the US media for the prosecution of Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper?
Even figures who are critical of the Director have not gone so far to admit what has clearly occurred. He has committed a felony. Perhaps there is some risk in being so blunt, but I believe that the truth must be spoken, clearly and assertively, when there are so many people who are committed to propagating a lie. While the beltway journalists have called the actions of Snowden and Greenwald treasonous, and have either implied or stated that they deserve the death penalty, the mainstream media remains silent on the crimes of James Clapper. This distinction of representation offers the clearest picture of how corporate discourse, in the US, operates. On the one hand, those who speak truth to power will be punished by those who feed at the troughs of the powerful. On the other, those who hold power, and do so with covert and illegal means, will be protected, shielded, covered, and endorsed by the apparent harmony of ‘insider journalists’ who are so frightened of the truth that they will freely and readily sacrifice any supposed legitimacy that the public may have alloted to them.
Edward Snowden did commit a crime. But this is an opportunity to reflect, as citizenry, and to ask ourselves when it is just to break an unjust law. During the movement for civil rights, the laws of segregation were consistently broken in order to increase pressure against the system of racial oppression. Daniel Ellsberg leaked the top-secret pentagon papers in order to reveal the sweeping criminality of the Vietnam War: countless lives were saved as a result. These instances of civil disobedience undoubtedly had a positive moral impact. So perhaps we should ask a different question: can we call ourselves moral actors when we fail to break an unjust law. I fear history will judge us harshly for our collective timidity.
Like Snowden, James Clapper also broke the law. But this act was not done from a moral and democratic impulse. Rather, Clapper lied in order to shield his own illegality, in order to cover his crimes, and to perpetuate a systematic and organized surveillance program against US citizens. While the media has done everything it can to focus on the character of Snowden and Greenwald, we must begin to ask ourselves why those in power are so hostile to a well-informed public: what dark truth lurks behind the veil and why is that truth so desperately hidden from us?