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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
“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
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.
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
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
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
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.