In many predominantly progressive and libertarian circles journalist Glenn Greenwald is regularly praised and even called a hero for his courageous and unflinching criticism of the developing national security state and for his custodianship of what might be described as the Snowden papers. Through the years I too have generally found his insights both informative and refreshing and, while I have believed Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning’s theft of huge masses of classified information to be a considerable overreach, I do think that after twelve years of government autarky it is now time for the White House to come clean on what it has been doing to its own citizenry, something that would not be taking place without the intelligence leaks.
But all of that conceded, I often find that people on the left of the political equation are frequently trapped by the terms of their own orthodoxy which is every bit as conducive to tunnel vision as would be a tea party pronouncement made by a Sarah Palin or Ted Cruz. Greenwald is now calling for the release from prison of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence in a federal prison in North Carolina and he is appearing on the Israeli media to make his case.
Greenwald’s logic goes something like this: as the Snowden papers demonstrate that the United States has been spying on Israel Washington has no right to judge others engaged in the same behavior and is therefore hypocritical when it continues to hold an Israeli spy engaging in espionage against the United States. He states that Snowden and Pollard are connected, “When the US government goes around the world criticizing other countries for spying on allies and prosecuting them, are they going to maintain that with a straight face when they’re doing exactly that?” Greenwald calls the double standard governmental hypocrisy and insists that no country has the right to tell other countries not to do something that it itself is secretly engaging in. He rejects the argument that the NSA spying has been carried out to protect against terrorism and asks rhetorically if the US, revealed to be spying on Israeli officials, really believes that “democratically elected” Israelis are involved in terror?
Greenwald goes on in his interview with Israeli television Channel 10 to assert that the leak of the Snowden documents has “defended the values of American democracy.”
I, perhaps not surprisingly, see the issue differently. There is a certain amount of smugness and self -justification in what Greenwald is trying to sell about Snowden (and Pollard). Does he claim that stealing great masses of documents is intrinsically a defense of democracy or is he only referring to those documents that reveal illegal or unconstitutional behavior that should be halted and condemned? If stopping illegal activity by the United States government is his actual objective why is he releasing documents on spying on foreign officials, an action that is neither illegal in the US nor unconstitutional? Or is he designating himself as arbiter of acceptable behavior for the entire world? So I am not quite sure what to make of his logic and fail to understand what exactly he is condemning. Nor is it clear to me if there are any limits to what he might reveal.
I believe that spying is essential for every country that needs information relating to its legitimate foreign interests that is not available through public records or open sources. I at the same time concede that United States intelligence post 9/11 has become an out-of-control monster pursuing its own agendas and believe espionage should only be employed when it is a last option and only in a situation where a vital interest is at stake, limitations that have not been much in evidence over the past twelve years.
One can believe that the government’s spying on its own people in a fashion that is arguably both illegal and unconstitutional should be subject to the scrutiny that it is now receiving and should be stopped immediately, but spying on foreign countries is another issue altogether as is the spying carried out by other nations directed against the United States. Every nation in the world that engages in espionage, which means nearly all nations, denies that it is engaging in such activity and is certainly hypocritical in its professed attitudes towards spying, as Greenwald notes, but that does not mean that spies cannot do serious damage and should not be arrested and punished as a consequence. The Greenwald line of argument does not recognize that distinction and his comments suggest that all spying is wrong and indefensible so therefore those involved in it at any level or in any place should be judged by the same standard.
Sometimes spying is the only option for learning about foreign government activity that might do genuine damage to one’s country. And Greenwald should know better than to ask whether the “democratically elected” officials in Israel are carrying out terrorism. Of course they are, and all he has to do is refer to the murder of nine unarmed Turks on the ‘Mavi Marmara’ in 2010, the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010 and the assassinations of Iranian scientists over the past three years.
Might it be in the interest of Washington to know exactly what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is up to, particularly as he described 9/11 as “good for Israel” while much of the world will blame any outrage carried out by Israel on the United States particularly as the Israelis have frequently used foreign passports to carry out their assassinations? And would it be a good idea for the United States to have prior knowledge if Israel were about to bomb Iran to get American ships in the Persian Gulf out of the way if for no other reason? And Greenwald might also consider the proportionality issue relative to the espionage that goes on between Israel and the US. It is largely a one way street with Israel doing most of the spying. Among nations friendly to the United States Israel is the most aggressive in its espionage activity, largely because it knows it can get away with it given the Justice Department’s all too convenient unwillingness to prosecute Israelis.
Greenwald also does not appear to appreciate the damage that Pollard did. Pollard was undoubtedly motivated to help Israel because he was Jewish but he also tried to sell information to several other countries and might even have been involved in trying to set up arms deals that could have placed sophisticated weapons in the hands of terrorists. Ultimately, he spied for Tel Aviv because he was paid for his services. He violated his oath to protect the information he had access to and gave the Israelis an entire room full of highly classified information. Some of that intelligence wound up in the Soviet Union in exchange for increased Jewish emigration. Greenwald might recall that the Soviets were (and still are) fully capable of destroying the United States in a nuclear exchange, so the provision of information that revealed US technical intelligence capabilities was potentially a serious matter. It has also been alleged that American intelligence sources were executed as a result of the information obtained in Moscow from Pollard by way of Israel.
It is not clear to me where Greenwald is likely to go next but employing logic similar to that which he uses with Pollard he might well conclude that because the US criminal justice system is flawed and sometimes convicts people who are innocent all people who have been judged guilty and sent to prison should be set free. The suggestion is appropriate applied to Pollard as he is, apart from anything else, a criminal. He stole something that did not belong to him and sold it. He betrayed his country. To claim that government hypocrisy is good grounds for freeing him is ludicrous.