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The Snowden Case: About More Than Leaking

Wherever one stands on the Snowden issue, it is high time to reassess the United States’ level of civic participation.

July 21, 2013

Credit: sikarin supphatada -

I really don’t care where Edward Snowden is going — or how he will get there. He isn’t Jason Bourne, and this isn’t a movie.

By focusing on the sensational aspects of this case, the media is missing a much more important discussion. And believe it or not, it’s not the privacy issue.

Rather, the Snowden case provides a glimpse into the dysfunctional dialogue between Americans and their government.

If we leave the drama for a moment, Snowden’s flight from the United States may have provided the country with an opportunity to slow down and take a fresh look at key items of the U.S. fabric historically — resistance, civil disobedience and protest in the country.

Wherever one stands on the Snowden issue, it is high time to reassess the United States’ level of civic participation and, in particular, the Americans’ ability to express the feeling of disaffection that many have.

What is intriguing about the Snowden case is that it cuts across ideological boundaries. Take Bruce Fein, a Reagan Administration justice official. He has assisted Snowden’s father in some of his communications with the public.

There are more than a few ardent conservatives in the Untied States who are very concerned about overreaches by the government.

Leaking as a part of public dialogue might not come readily to mind when thinking about democratic governance. But it can be at the center of that issue when the system has moved away from its roots of deliberation and the notion of open decision-making.

Moreover, leaking can be seen as an effort to force the government into a more open conversation on subjects that, though deemed sensitive, directly affect the citizenry.

Wikileaks, on their wiki, has even defined leaking in terms of its ability to “bring down many administrations that rely on concealing reality from their peoples.”

Snowden himself, in his press conference in the Moscow airport, stated that he was violating the U.S. laws in order to protect the rights of U.S. citizens.

His statement brings to mind the lines from Henry David Thoreau: “If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.”

Philosopher Jürgen Habermas has termed civil disobedience the democratic litmus test. That may be highly relevant for today’s United States.

After all, as a nation, we Americans cannot just focus on civic strife in Turkey and elsewhere, to the exclusion of examining serious imbalances on the home front.

To better understand the Snowden case, we need to look at the changing views of the U.S. population toward their government.

Americans’ views on the government have taken a negative turn over the past ten years. That also happens to be the same period during which the U.S. intelligence agencies’ official budgets grew by more than 200%.

According to a 2013 Pew survey, 53% of Americans view the government as a threat to their personal rights and freedoms.

A grim reflection of this feeling might be found in the fact that sales of George Orwell’s 1984 increased 3,100% on the day after the NSA’s Prism project came to light.

If the U.S. public increasingly views itself in an Orwellian system, it is no wonder that they would choose to become Winston Smith, the book’s protagonist. A government employee, he seeks to resist the government.

Another Pew survey notes that 41% of Americans believe the NSA’s obtaining of American telephone records is unacceptable, while 52% believe the government should not be able to monitor everyone’s emails.

This brings up an important question: Why, despite these levels of disapproval, don’t we see widespread public protest?

A group calling itself “Restore the Fourth” organized protests on July 4, 2013 in 100 U.S. cities. It hoped for the participation 10,000 people to bring public attention to the NSA’s snooping.

Estimates have put the nationwide turnout at only a few thousand. Four hundred people showed up in New York and 300 in San Francisco.

At the Washington protest, Thomas Drake, another former NSA whistle-blower, called for a new American revolution “against the surveillance state and government control of information.”

The low participation rate of the Restore the Fourth protest suggests that there is no likelihood that Americans’ will heed Drake’s call.

The reason why might come from what social scientist Theda Skocpol has called America’s “diminished democracy.” In her view, that diminution is due to the withering of participatory groups and social movements.

A 2008 NPR article quotes a Columbia University professor, Dana Fisher, as saying, “Today’s protests lack the numbers of attendees, duration and galvanizing confluence of social movements that made rallies decades earlier so powerful.”

The hopeful scenario is that U.S. citizens may be drawing on other forms of resistance that are better suited to today’s cultural, societal and political structures.

Snowden’s leaking may simply be a part of this process — civil disobedience through the outing of secret information.

He may simply be expressing the feeling of alienation that people feel in U.S. politics about the fact that a large number of decisions are being made behind closed doors.

Snowden, like many U.S. citizens, may feel that this is his way of making a difference — as a solitary hero, like Batman, fighting against a corrupt world.

If, however, Snowden’s leaking of information is civil disobedience, as he suggests, then he needs to come back to the United States.

After all, an important aspect of the concept is that the transgressor accepts the consequences of his actions in the case that he cannot alter the situation.

But the U.S. government should also be ready to entertain treating this as an act of civil disobedience — and not espionage.

None of this will solve the problem in total. Neither will the current policy of simply charging leakers with crimes.

If indeed leaking has become the 21st century’s civil disobedience, the leakers know what they are doing is a transgression of law, but are doing it for loftier goals.

Given all that, it might be time to think about the amount of secretive activity of the government and about seriously changing the system and culture.

That may lead to the public becoming more civically active and more involved in networks that don’t simply entail “liking” or “poking.” This would carry with it the ability to effect real change.

In the United States, that might require taking the work of lobbyists out of the hands of professionals — and back into those of volunteers and broad-based membership organizations.

But most important is to change the American citizens’ image of their government through increased deliberative democracy.

If the U.S. system of deliberation is failing, forces in the government, which are not only bureaucratic and self-referential but also secretive, are liable to take more power. That would diminish democracy even further.

In such a system, resistance against these bureaucratic power-holders will be the primary weapon — much as Snowden’s was.


The Snowden case provides a glimpse into the dysfunction between Americans and their government.

If his leaking of information is civil disobedience, then Snowden needs to come back to the United States.

The U.S. government should consider treating this as an act of civil disobedience and not espionage.

53% of Americans view the government as a threat to their personal rights and freedoms.

Snowden exercised civil disobedience through the outing of secret information.