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The Solitary Leaker (nytimes.com)
63 points by impendia on June 11, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments

This paragraph is the ultimate in irony:

  He betrayed the Constitution. The founders did not create
  the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could
  make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed.
Founders weren't interested in the rights of the individual, protecting him from his own government? Frankly, I find that view deeply cynical, far more so than anything the author points to in 'dem youths.

I think that this author's viewpoint boils down to: Whisteblowing on the US government is fundamentally immoral. Young Americans are restive because they are at the core antisocial, being raised in a newly flawed society that fails to make clear that the status quo, the hulking paternalist nation-state, serves the common good.

Frankly, it reads like an old defense of Royalism.

The whole article is so ad hominem ("look, here we have a freak breaking the law, he is a poor lonely guy without friends and almost a sociopath") and so wilfully pseudo-naïve ("And, of course, he’s right that the procedures he’s unveiled could lend themselves to abuse in the future.") that it is more than insulting. It is unbelievable that this has made the NYT.


Patronizing, like any government sponsoring person looks nowadays.

Don't forget the forced repetition to drive the point home He betrayed...He betrayed...He betrayed...He betrayed...He betrayed...He betrayed...He betrayed...

Nothing in his editorial comes as a surprise. David Brooks remains the same neoconservative apologist that he was in the spring of 2003, when he was beating the war drums for President Bush. Show me a David Brooks editorial and I'll show you a point in an unbroken ideological party line that goes back for more than a decade. He even got a guest appearance in David Brooks' new book "So Wrong for So Long", highlighting his role in propagandizing the Iraq war. All that said, his argument is lacking an important detail as well--the recognition of culture and society on the Internet. We're not all solitary loners, naked against the machine of the state. We're a global culture that is based on free exchange of information, as well as open, informed, and vigorous debate, and a fluid voluntary participation in social groups and organizations that is nothing like the clubs or companies of yesteryear. Our culture is strong enough to be building toward an immense demographic shift in U.S. politics. Tomorrow's senators and congressmen are today's high schoolers and college kids. We aren't likely going to allow a system of lifelong surveillance to jeopardize the future integrity of our social structures either. On the whole, I'm not too swayed by Mr. Brooks' arguments.

It's almost classic conservatism: structure is good, people in authority know better than you, listen to your elders, and so on.

Maybe it's my bias, and I'm probably not educated about the deeper arguments on both sides of the PRISM case - but this article feels very off to me. The cynic in me feels like this is pure inner circle propaganda.

"He betrayed the cause of open government. Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter. They limit debate a little more."

So our choices are to quietly ignore the fact that the circles he speaks of have already closed beyond recognition - and are continuing to do so without our knowledge or consent. We're obviously not involved in the debate in the fist place - so it seems to me that we have nothing to lose - at least out in the open we can actually watch the circle of trust close.

Yeah. That was the paragraph that put me over the top too. Blaming the vicim doesn't make any sense here.

"The reason I don't tell anyone outside my family anything is that I'm afraid my sister will tell them"

This is a mind-blowingly atrocious read.

It's an opinion of this unfortunate writer that poor Mr. Snowden is an outcast, a loser, someone who is a victim of this age of solitude. Why else would he throw everything away? David Brooks goes on to attack this leak, saying that it will further decay society, and lead to even more surveillance.

David Brooks: how stupid do you think we are?

i just tweeted the hacker news link to him, so there is a decent chance he is in fact reading this stuff.

Brooks is the NYT's token conservative and fuddy-duddy establishment mouthpiece. He's there to make Krugman look more credible and Friedman look more clever by comparison. Pay him no mind, anyone who would actually agree with any of his opinions doesn't even read NYT in the first place, they read the WP instead.

Eh, Washington Post has a few of these guys too: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/marc-thiessen-leaks-n...

This is... impressive:

He betrayed the privacy of us all. If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods.


More like he betrayed the privacy of the NSA...

"He betrayed the privacy of us all. If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods."

So as long as you're spied upon unintrusively, it's all fine and dandy?

That the NYT should print this bloviating pundit's Orwellian attempt to twist a self-sacrificing attempt to defend privacy in to a cynical betrayal of privacy shames the paper, if it could be shamed any further.

He betrayed the cause of open government. [...] He betrayed the privacy of us all. [...] He betrayed the Constitution.

Really? It's like a parody of a bought opinion. Surely there must be better ways of discrediting him.

This is a classic "hit piece" that Brooks has done. Find suspicion in everything the guy does and look at his whole life in a negative light. This is the epitome of an Ad Hominem attack. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem

I don't agree with Brooks's viewpoint, but I would be curious to read how HN readers might refute (or support) his argument.

I find his philosophical views fairly reactionary. What does he want? For society to go back to a pyramid structure where people are bound to a particular village and have freedom to construct their own lives? We watch movies about people living in those kinds of worlds, whether authority prevents a person from being with someone they love, or forces them into a subservient role because of some irrelevant parental or biological characteristic, or simply denies them the right to follow their dreams, and I don't know about you but my reaction every time is one of horror. I would not want to live in that world. And yet that's what these "mediating institutions" that conservatives love ultimately do.

He is correct in that the reason why we are living under these simultaneous horrors of alienation and encroaching statism is indeed the fact that there is nothing other than the individual and the state left. But the solution is not to go back; rather, it is to go forward. For the first time, we have an internet that exposes us to cultural artifacts and sets of values from all around the world. You right now are reading something written by a Russian Canadian; the person replying to me may well be Chinese. True, we aren't going to spend our lives bound from the top down by powerful overarching communities. But what we can do is create communities of our own. We're seeing it already; the fact that this new wave of peer-to-peer services (taking an expansive definition of the term) like AirBnB, Couchsurfing and Meetup are doing so well is proof that people are willing to search for groups of people that share their own values and get together with them. For the first time in history, we're seeing powerful non-governmental organizations bounded by nothing but a shared vision for a better world get seats at the same conferences and decision-making bodies as governments and businesses. Freedom is not amoralism; notice that the author of this article mentioned that Snowden actually _donated_ to Ron Paul; would the archetype "selfish" individualist without enough money to actually influence the outcome ever do such a thing? Rather, freedom is the ability to shape your life according to your own image. And it's about time we simultaneously recognize the problems of the present day and advance a vision to move our society forward that recognizes this fact.

I would say his argument is the olde: "We, your betters, know best. Don't argue or criticise, its unpatriotic." Oh, and bung in a bit of "what have you got to hide", while we are at it.

I really, really, hate saying this, because usually its a phrase used by right wing nut jobs, but it really smacks of genuine intellectual elitism. (Thank god for British gun laws, saying that makes me want to blow my brains out, or at least an old laptop. I'll have to make do with the next best thing, a Jack Daniels on ice)

I find the framing of Snowden's actions as "unilateral" to be suspect. He's a whistleblower at the NSA, not a union organizer at a trucking company. What else would he do, see if any of his colleagues want to join him first?

I also feel like you're loyalty to an employer should be based on more than a $200k salary and an office in Hawaii, as Brooks suggests.

Yeah, sounds like he thinks Snowden should have organised a coup d'etat. And that would NOT have been treasonous....

Me neighter. I really don't see how keeping information to himself could have helped in any way. It's important for society to be aware of what is happening and it's up to society itself to decide on how much of their freedom they want to give away in order to be 'safe'. And what on earth does visiting one's mother have to do with a national security issue?

One sentence from the piece. "If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods."

1. Eavesdropping does not disappear when vast data sweeps are allowed. 2. The problem with secret vast data sweeps is that they are secret and the efficiency cannot be questioned by the public. Even if the result of the sweeps induce more eavesdropping and wasting even more resources.

He doesn't exactly question that the data sweeps are accurate or not, he just assumes that they are. After a little exposure to machine learning, data mining and statistics he might question them a little more.

The author neglects to mention that "family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world" have all but been destroyed in today's world, to the point where national identities barely exist in my generation. We are not weird, just the product of our times. We are more taxpayers and consumers than citizens, this is actually more prevalent in europe than the US at the moment. I don't know how strong the American national identity still is, but seeing how they literally need to spy on everyone to keep the congregation from breaking apart is pretty alarming.

Maybe the author should wonder how it came to be that people trust facebook, google and other corporations(!) more than they trust the government they elect and its institutions.

"For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures." two-way street

This is one of the oddest things I've read all week. It accuses Snowden of a lack of character and claims that lack is a threat to society. But this society and its government are designed to minimize that threat.

The reason we have a "big government" is to make unnecessary the civic virtue Snowden supposedly lacks. The article calls "honesty and integrity" "the foundation of all cooperative activity." But we have a highly regulated economy, to ensure that it still works when most of its participants are dishonest people with little integrity. Now that integrity is unnecessary, it's predictably rare.

Similarly, it says Snowden damaged "the social fabric" and has "no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good." The U.S. doesn't need its citizens "knit together". The country is held together by government power, not a fabric of common consensus. Citizens don't need to look after the common good. That's the job of the authorities the author commends. NSA surveillance is supposed to prevent "solitary naked individuals" from causing any trouble.

In summary, not just Snowden but the whole country fails to live up the the character standard set out by this article. And that doesn't matter. Unless the cynical people are right.

> He betrayed the privacy of us all. If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods.

The problem with this argument is that it assumes these methods are used to the exclusion of other eavesdropping methods. In fact, they are used as a precursor to them - and increase the total amount of invasive eavesdropping that goes on.

I am so shocked by this dingy piece of character assassination that I barely know where or how to begin refuting it. If Edward Snowden betrayed his society, then surely his society betrayed him first. The ineptitude and callous disregard with which the nation state serves it's constituents is the real crime here: No conspiracy, just incompetence. The banality of evil writ large.

Brooks claims that the bonds of society are weakening; that we are atomizing in an inexorable trend towards individualism. I refute this. The bonds of society are as strong as ever; but they are being reshaped and reforged in a manner that crosses geographical boundaries; that renders old allegiances obsolete and creates new societies; new movements, and new sources of power and influence.

Brooks may find it confusing and frightening; I find it exhilarating and liberating to live in such an age of change.

Edward Snowden; together with a great multitude of like-minded individuals are forging a new pact; a new power base. One built on a common culture of technological literacy coupled with socially progressive and economically libertarian views. We have no geographical focus, and our representation in traditional power structures is limited; but we are a real force for change, and the change is only just beginning.

The main slur that Brooks seeks to perpetuate seems to regard Snowden's anti-social behavior, Putting aside the disgraceful Ad-Hominem attack for one moment, let me use myself as a counterexample: (Perhaps not the best, but the only one I have to hand) I have a wife and a family; I am gregarious and social; yet my affinity (and loyalty) to like-minded individuals half a world away transcends all of that. Like Snowden, I have had security clearances in the past. Unlike Snowden, I choose not to leak what I know, but I make my choice not out of loyalty to my family, my community or my country, nor out of fear of reprisal, but out of a dedication to professional ethics.

There are more, and greater things in this world than governments and nation states.

"For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things."

I'm amazed that the solution to being spied on by my government, showing that they have no basic level of trust in me or my fellow citizens, is to bow my head and treat this as a common procedure.

"He betrayed the privacy of us all. If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods."

Wait...what? He didn't betray my privacy, my government did. The second part of the argument there is the most amazing leap of logic I've ever seen. "If we outlaw this invasive procedure, then they'll do something far worse that we've outlawed." I don't understand this at all.

There are so many objectionable parts of this article that while typing out my problems with it I just started raging at my desk. I don't know what to say. I'm just appalled. Any discussion on Snowden and whether or not what he did was right is a sideshow and should wait until we figure out what to do with the information he gave us.

EDIT: No, let's keep going.

"He betrayed the Constitution. The founders did not create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed. Snowden self-indulgently short-circuited the democratic structures of accountability, putting his own preferences above everything else."

The leaker of secret programs that on the surface appear to clearly violate my Fourth Amendment rights is the one who is not being held accountable? It was self-indulgent to tell the world about how the NSA is spying on everyone, all of the time? This is an ad hominem attack that makes no sense. The programs he exposed "short-circuited the democratic structures of accountability," not him.

I don't know the author and what trust means for him - but my level of trust in humanity increased after I read the Snowden story.

Have you guys noticed that the whistle-blowers of late are geeks? Snowden, Manning and before that Stockwell.

I have a lot of problem with Brooks' argument, but I still find it interesting enough to upvote and comment on.

We've had government secrets for hundreds of years, yet lately we seem to have an upsurge in leakers. What has changed? Have "those dang kids" just given up on traditional structures of authority, as Brooks believes? Or has the system itself grown evil enough that people view their obligation to their fellow citizen more important than their obligation to the structures created by those citizens?

I think as government continues to tighten the screws on society, more and more people are going to rat out the system. Some are going to be single-issue types who limit what they release. These guys have one issue that they feel a majority of the population would be outraged about if they only knew. I support these guys, although I would warn them that they could very well be wrong -- people might not be outraged. And they are gambling with their lives. The penalty for treason is death. This is not something to take lightly at all.

The other folks are mad at the system itself. They declare war on it and do whatever they can to hurt it. I do not support these people, mainly because some secrecy is necessary and we rely on our system of government to do good and necessary things.

99.999% of the time, your oath should come ahead of any personal considerations you might have. But not always.

I also note that the smearing of Snowden has begun and now is in full force. If I were some of these reporters, I'd be asking myself how I would feel if the rest of the media establishment treated me this way the next time I broke a major story.

> We've had government secrets for hundreds of years, yet lately we seem to have an upsurge in leakers. What has changed? Have "those dang kids" just given up on traditional structures of authority, as Brooks believes?

Well, Brooks come off as a huge blowhard to me, but the government is pretty objectively less evil than it's been in the past (My Lai, COINTELPRO, Syphilis testing on unsuspecting blacks, state-condoned lynching, Trail of Tears, ECHELON, HUAC, Slavery, the Three-Fifths Compromise, the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, "Separate But Equal", Kent State, Jim Crow laws, Nisei detainment camps, etc. etc. etc.)

I personally feel the reason that leaking is increasing is simply that it's easier to do, and the perceived consequences on national security are much less.

Back in the day you leak nuclear missile plans and you could get the entire world killed by tipping MAD over too far. But even this leak of NSA collection schemes will not drastically change the overall geopolitical picture, even if it does potentially lead to degradation of counter-terrorism capability.

However it's also possible that people are becoming more idealistic faster than the government is becoming less evil, which would IMO explain much of the hysterics over issues like this that can't be explained by their relative impact in an historical context.

Do you think you can reasonably predict how history will come to see the government that you refer to?

(I'm thinking that lots of things that seem normal now might not seem so reasonable in 30 years)

I can't reasonably predict the weather next week. But either way, I don't choose what to do based on what some Ph.D. will think of it 40 years from now, I choose what to do based on whether it's right or wrong. When it's not that simple, I try to go by what is the best overall solution.

I can see how the way I phrased it brings up the eyes of some Ph.D., but I was thinking more about having a complete picture of things, or new information changing the context of interpretation for things, etc.

Well, I always reserve the right to change my mind when the facts change, or my understanding of them does. I don't like to think I'm locked into a certain viewpoint or worse, that my viewpoint changes to be what's most advantageous for me personally at any given phase in my life. And I do think I have a good understanding of history.

But at the same time I think that a good understanding of history's past failures can enable you to essentially "try again correctly" in the future.

I think all of us agree that civil liberties are important and that a government's protection of its citizens is important. I see it as an area of tension, but not as a bloodfight like some on both sides of that issue.

Brook's position is vital to have out in public. It's basically the governments argument, written in plain English.

With it out in public, the public can deal with it, as you are doing. Had this article not appeared, you would not have posted what you did.

As for the smearing, I have no doubt that these reporters and commentators fully believe in what they are saying. They believe in their government and the believe in the war on terror.

The problem with Brooks's arguments is that they fail as soon as you apply them to other NSA whistle blowers like Bill Binney and Tom Drake. He paints Snowden as a young, incompetent, introverted outcast who "couldn't navigate the institution of high school." That mud just doesn't stick on the others who blew the whistle for the same moral reasons as Snowden, like 40-year NSA veteran Binney.

Was Daniel Ellsberg a youthful, rebellious societal outcast, unable to navigate the country's institutions? Just someone who was eager to confront authority?

Good points. Just as an aside, I often hear people repeat the mantra that government needs secrecy, but have yet to hear a justification which is worth the many rampant abuses covered by its cloak.

My own government has of late been justifying its own abuses by claiming commercial-in-confidence with the private partnerships it is operating, not to mention they just exempted parliamentary privileges from FOI.

Wait, hold on. I want this to come across as respectfully as possible -- I'm not attacking you personally -- but I believe you're falling into the very trap the author of the article is trying to point out. Namely, "... it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state."

You construct a scenario with two choices: "those dang kids" and "system itself grown evil"

Well, the first one works to highlight absurdity because "dang kids" isn't a homogeneous group all working towards a coherent end. There's a lot of dang kids around and a lot of them hold different conflicting beliefs and are working towards different conflicting goals.

But the "system itself" isn't a homogeneous group working towards a coherent end either. The "system" is a giant, confused, messy, bureaucracy that doesn't get together Thursday nights for bowling, evil and 10 cent wings. That's why, behind communication intercepts, our favorite topic to bitch about is govt inefficiency and waste.

I don't necessarily agree with the article and I'm not saying that there aren't valid criticisms of the system (giant, confused, messy, bureaucratic) or even of parts of the system (NSA being evil and the President being complicit in that evil).

But if we're going to call the NSA's mass surveillance evil (about which I won't argue), then I'd hazard to say that part of that "evil" is the paternalistic nature of this idea that in order to save our freedom (from TERROR!) we must give up that freedom (to BIG DATA!). In other words, someone else knows what's best.

So we need to be careful that, in fighting this idea that the govt knows best so just trust them to do the right thing for all of us, we don't turn into that govt. You write "Or has the system itself grown evil enough that people view their obligation to their fellow citizen more important than their obligation to the structures created by those citizens?"

If citizens are more concerned with -- and name your own whipping boy here: Reality TV, facebook, buying a new car / bigger house, getting fatter, getting hawter, whatevs -- and they vote in leaders who perpetuate these acts then in a sense we all get what they deserve. It's not fair but it's the nature of living in a society.

Awkward sentence construction aside, you can't save people from themselves. Doing so, in this case, makes you the thing you're fighting. And I think that's what the author in the NYT was saying. It's dangerous to start thinking "I know better than the system" because the person has now internalized some very dangerous assumptions. He no longer sees the world as a place filled with people. He sees the world in very stark, black and white, him vs the system, terms. And the rest of us, we're part of the system (that is, vs him). That kind of thinking leads to some very, very bad places but I'll save that for a different tl;dr comment.

And I hope that doesn't come across as an attack on you. I don't know that I agree or disagree with your comment in it's entirety but you made an interesting generalization from a very specific thing and that's what I was reacting to.

If you ever wanted a case study in bare faced propaganda, this is it. You'll rarely see a hit piece this brazen.

"But Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good."

Aside from mentioning "Big Brother" this reads like something directly from the mouth of Orwell's Big Brother. The vague invocation of impossible to prove dangers ("cynicism", "distrust", "individualistic" people). The clear identification of an enemy: "solitary", "individualistic" people (who are harder to coerce and threaten). The rebranding of social control to "knit[ting] others together and look[ing] after the common good." It's all there, plain as day, in the most respected newspaper in America.

The sad thing is that more will come. The NSA's secret programs are so obviously indefensible that the only recourse available to the mouthpieces of power like Mr. Brooks is to mount pathetic ad hominem attacks against the messenger.

Brooks argues, "He betrayed honesty and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity. He made explicit and implicit oaths to respect the secrecy of the information with which he was entrusted. He betrayed his oaths."

This argument negates the trust and integrity the government discarded when it chose to implement citizen surveillance.

Further, Snowden took an oath to protect the US against all enemies, foreign and domestic. He broke no oath.

I'm starting to think some people value social stability so much that they would condemn the leaking of "Soylent Green is people!"

If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world.

It's pretty presumptuous to take humans' current social structure and say it's the best possible structure. The concept of hierarchy itself is directly opposed to equality and fairness, and it's perfectly reasonable to believe that equality and fairness are more important.

I personally hold just one level of hierarchy: humanity. We're all so similar in the grand scheme of things, we might as well be family and fight the universe instead of each other.

Also, he used two colons in the same sentence. Gutsy.

fascinating to listen to Brooks wax poetic about authoritative structures. One would think he might be a little skeptical of them ... guess not.

We need to make and maintain a list of all the sell out hacks that betray their own people. If that list already exists, who ever has commit access please add Brooks to it.

cut him some slack, he is just another Obama-worshipping sycophant :)

Given the love of authority, and OPs seeming inability to tell the difference between valid and invalid syllogisms, my money's on Bush-worshipping :p

Take a look at the comment section and the reader picks vs. the NYT picks. The NYT picks are about 50/50, readers are up in arms.

"He betrayed the privacy of us all. If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods."

Wow, the mental contortions that were undertaken to produce this sentence are just astounding.

Brooks' argument sounds logical until you realize it applies to all whistleblowers. His world is one in which there is no way to shine light on evil without being disloyal. This extreme I do disagree with very much.

There can bee some amount of vanity on part of the leaker, but Brooks' argument boils down to "the government can do no wrong".

When a multi-billion dollar corporation (X-Mart) forces its employees to go on the dole (for lack of a living wage) and live without health insurance (the providence of which companies directly and indirectly lobby heavily to leave in their hands), well, you have to wonder a bit at the assumption of this series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world.

Oh, wait, he didn't mention employer in all that.

Brooks is, for all the controversy surrounding him, a good writer. A good wordsmith.

But sometimes he expresses a perspective that appears to be rather sheltered and privileged.

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