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It goes without saying that the honchos of the national security state weren’t exactly happy with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations. Still, over the last year, the comments of such figures, politicians associated with them, and retirees from their world clearly channeling their feelings have had a striking quality: over-the-top vituperation. About the nicest thing anyone in that crew has had to say about Snowden is that he’s a “traitor” or — shades of the Cold War era (and of absurdity, since the State Department trapped him in the transit lounge of a Moscow airport by taking his passport away) — a “Russian spy.” And that’s the mild stuff. Such figures have also regularly called for his execution, for quite literally stringing him up from the old oak tree and letting him dangle in the breeze. Theirs has been a bloodcurdling collective performance that gives the word “visceral” new meaning.
Such a response to the way Snowden released batches of NSA documents to Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman calls for explanation. Here’s mine: the NSA’s goal in creating a global surveillance state was either utopian or dystopian (depending on your point of view), but in either case, breathtakingly totalistic. Its top officials meant to sweep up every electronic or online way one human being can communicate with others, and to develop the capability to surveil and track every inhabitant of the planet. From German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to peasants with cell phones in the backlands of Afghanistan (not to speak of American citizens anywhere), no one was to be off the hook. Conceptually, there would be no exceptions. And the remarkable thing is how close the agency came to achieving this.
Whether consciously or not, however, the officials of the U.S. Intelligence Community did imagine one giant exception: themselves. No one outside the loop was supposed to know what they were doing. They alone on the planet were supposed to be unheard, unspied upon, and unsurveilled. The shock of Snowden’s revelations, I suspect, and the visceral reactions came, in part, from the discovery that such a system really did have no exceptions, not even them. In releasing the blueprint of their world, Snowden endangered nothing in the normal sense of the term, but that made him no less of a traitor to their exceptional world as they imagined it. What he ensured was that, as they surveil us, we can now in some sense track them. His act, in other words, dumped them in with the hoi polloi — with us — which, under the circumstances, was the ultimate insult and they responded accordingly.
An allied explanation lurks in Noam Chomsky’s latest TomDispatch post. If the “security” in national security means not the security of the American people but, as he suggests, of those who run the national security state, and if secrecy is the attribute of power, then Edward Snowden broke their code of secrecy and exposed power itself to the light in a devastating and deflating way. No wonder the reaction to him was so bloodthirsty and vitriolic. Chomsky himself has an unsettling way of exposing various worlds of power, especially American power, to the light with similarly deflating results. He’s been doing it for half a century and only gets better.