Monday, February 23, 2015

When it's wrong to keep your word

Edward Snowden was trusted with keeping a secret. When he took a job working as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), he voluntarily took an oath pledging to not divulge classified information about the US government’s electronic surveillance programs. In the end, he couldn’t keep that oath. He broke it.

Good for him.

Many had access to the same information Snowden had, including members of Congress who had the platform to do something about it -- but none did. That’s a shame, because if any member of the political establishment had the courage to inform the public about what was being done in their name (and with their money), we would have known about the NSA’s gobbling up of telephone metadata several years ago. We would have known that the US government can tap into a Skype call or email thread with nothing more than a broad authorization from justices on a secret court that approved a full 100 percent of the surveillance requests they received in 2010.

But we don’t have people like that in Congress. We put people like that in prison.

Oath keepers

“Mr. Snowden broke the law,” Dick Durbin, the second highest ranking member of the Senate, recently told reporters. Never mind the wrongdoing Snowden exposed. What was important to liberal Democrat from Illinois was that Snowden -- “a man of limited education and limited life experience” -- wronged those whose wrongdoing he swore he’d take to the grave. “They told him, we will give you access to the most important and delicate classified information in America,” said Durbin. “You gotta take an oath that you will never disclose it. We take the same oath, members of Congress. He broke his oath. He committed a crime. He needs to pay a price for it.”

Durbin, of all people, should know better.

On April 25, 2007, the Illinois lawmaker took to the Senate floor to reveal a shocking secret: As a member of the Intelligence Committee during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he knew the Bush administration was lying.

“I would read the headlines in the paper in the morning and watch the television newscasts and shake my head because, you see, just a few hundred feet away from here in a closed room, carefully guarded, the Intelligence Committee was meeting on a daily basis for top-secret briefings about the information we were receiving, and the information we had in the Intelligence Committee was not the same information being given to the American public,” he said.

In particular, Durbin highlighted the case of Iraq’s “aluminum tubes,” which the Bush administration regularly claimed could have no other purpose than to deliver a nuclear warhead to the heartland, despite strong objections from US government scientists. Inside the committee room, this disagreement was acknowledged. Outside the room, however, “members of the administration were telling the American people to be fearful of mushroom-shaped clouds.”

“I was angry about it,” the senator continued. But, “Frankly, I couldn't do much about it,” he maintained, “because, in the Intelligence Committee, we are sworn to secrecy.”

No courage in Congress

Durbin could have come forward and announced the White House was lying to the American public. He could have dared the Bush administration to prosecute a sitting senator. But he kept his oath; he kept a promise with liars to keep their lies a secret. And then hundreds of thousands of people died.
Durbin isn’t the only senator who has kept silent when he witnessed something wrong, of course. There are 99 others.

Speaking on the Senate floor last year, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden warned the US government was relying on a secret interpretation of the law to justify its broad surveillance programs “should never be a secret from the American people.” In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, he also said that “Justice Department officials have -- on a number of occasions -- made what we believe are misleading statements pertaining to the government’s interpretation of surveillance law.”

But Wyden kept secret what they lied about. Why? Because he took an oath. As The New York Times reported, the senator “had to be content to sit in a special sealed room, soak in information that they said appalled and frightened them, then offer veiled messages that were largely ignored.”

Telling the truth works

When Snowden broke his oath and leaked evidence of the NSA’s appalling and frightening surveillance capabilities, the evidence wasn’t ignored. It made headlines around the globe. Rather than working within a system designed to stifle dissent, he went directly to the public. And it worked: everyone is talking about it.

In reasonable doses, loyalty can be a good thing. But when loyalty to power comes at the public's expense, it is a character flaw, not a virtue, something both Snowden and Chelsea Manning before him recognized despite their “limited education and limited life experience.” In fact, that's probably why they did what they did. Neither had been conditioned by years in Washington to believe there's anything honorable about keeping an oath with a liar. They knew shutting their mouths would only make them accessories.

Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning would make terrible senators. For that, we should be thankful.

An earlier version of this essay was posted by another website quite a while ago. I prefer this one.

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