Most critics of Edward Snowden's curious live chat at the U.K.'s Guardian today are focusing on the surveillance-leaker's evasiveness, grandiosity and martyr's complex: "All I can say right now is the U.S. Government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me," he noted. "Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped."
I found the event more remarkable for the insight it provided on whether Snowden felt that warning Americans about their government's actions might also empower those who would hurt us. Turns out, he doesn't think there is all that much to be worried about. "I did not reveal any US operations against legitimate military targets," he said, explaining that:
Congress hasn't declared war on the countries -- the majority of them are our allies -- but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people. And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we're not even fighting? So we can potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own Police?
This is a very puzzling thing to hear from someone who voluntarily joined the surveillance-industrial complex. Does he really think the only legitimate objects of NSA snooping are "declared" military targets? That even in the post-Sept. 11 world, the primary threat we're looking for comes from nations rather than non-state actors? That the prospect of Americans dying at the hands of terrorists should be shrugged off by a society inured to homegrown violence?
Yet Snowden's quaintly archaic vision of international relations seems downright sophisticated compared with his effort to use history to argue that the U.S. government has no more business spying on foreigners than it does on its citizens:
The "U.S. Persons" protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it's only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%. Our founders did not write that "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all U.S. Persons are created equal."
Well, without going to a Clarence Thomas level of originalism, let's stipulate that alongside the Founding Fathers' stirring talk on equality was a belief that American citizens should have constitutional rights not shared by people living on the other side of the world. The men who enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts weren't under any illusions that the brotherhood of man protected them from surprise attack.
At this point, even Snowden's staunchest defenders worry he's becoming a liability. "Every time you say stuff like this, you make it easier to marginalize you as a messenger, and you cost yourself allies in the general cause for which you have risked so much," warns Esquire's Charles P. Pierce. Yes, it would be nifty for critics of government surveillance to de-link the man from the cause, but one doesn't have to be blanket defender of the NSA's actions to see that Snowden's particular message is the product of a remarkably naive worldview.
The real question is how the U.S. defense establishment went from employing Dr. Strangelove to hiring this pupil of Dr. Pangloss.
(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)