I was out walking my dog the other morning, and my neighbor Tom--known locally as “the gentle radical”--was out shoveling the snow from his walk. He was puffing, and I asked him if he’d like to take a break and give me a turn at the shovel.
“Thanks for the offer, Ace,” he said with a smile, “but I need to do things like this to work off my frustration. If I couldn’t shovel snow, rake leaves, and tend to my garden, I think the top of my head might periodically blow off.”
The dog had lain down at my feet and wasn’t in any hurry to get anywhere, and Tom seemed ready for some friendly conversation. “What’s challenged your blood pressure this time?” I asked.
“The media,” he said. “Especially TV at the moment. The way they handle this Snowden affair is so unprofessional and unjust that they ought to be ashamed to call themselves part of the ‘free press.‘ Present company excepted, of course. Your sports reporting seems unhindered by any constraints.”
“Ah, thanks, Tom. I guess. What about Snowden coverage has you so upset?”
“Most recently, the Sunday talk shows. Last week they allowed themselves to be used in an attempt to smear Mr. Snowden by alleging that he’s a Russian spy. That happened on all three of the old mainstream networks. NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation, and ABC’s This Week.”
“I don’t get it,” I admitted. “Why would they do that?”
“It was one colossal diversion,” said Tom, “a desperate attempt to make Snowden the issue and turn attention away from the massive secret spying on all of us that he has exposed.”
“I never watch those Sunday talk shows,” I said. “What exactly went on?”
“Mike Rogers, the Republican chair of the House Committee on Intelligence; Michael McCaul, Republican chair of the House Homeland Security Committee; and Diane Feinstein, the Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, all took a swing at Mr. Snowden. Mr. Rogers was the one who weighed in most heavily, if you could use that phrase to describe such an empty case.”
“What do you mean, ‘an empty case’?”
“Well, for starters, there was no evidence offered, mind you. Nor were there any demands for evidence by the hosts. Nor was any person with an opposite viewpoint there to respond. How unfair can you get? It’s one-sided, and it’s an abdication of the networks’ responsibility to the public. It’s not news, it’s propaganda.”
The more Tom talked, the redder his face grew. “Excuse me for a minute,” he said, then turned and began shoveling. After a couple of minutes he stopped, heaved a sigh, and said, “Where were we?”
“You were just criticizing the Sunday talk shows.”
“Ah, right. You know, I don’t blame you for not watching them. That kind of dishonest political theater can tear your heart out, if you really care about your country.”
“But suppose they’re right and Snowden actually is a Russian spy?” I worried.
“That’s a good question, Ace. We have a problem here, don’t we. Clearly, somebody is lying to us ... either Edward Snowden, or all of the powerful figures lined up against him. Who should we believe? The honorable thing to do is to give a fair hearing to both sides. Let’s look at the evidence, shall we?” And he began to sum up the evidence, ticking off the points on his fingers.
“One, despite revelation after revelation from Mr. Snowden of the scope and nature of NSA spying, no one has ever denied that his revelations are accurate. In fact, they appear to have been chosen with extreme care to do just what he claims they were intended to do: give the people of the U.S. the information they need to make an informed choice about whether the NSA’s total surveillance is really the kind of society they want to live in.
Two, despite a lot of loose talk about Mr. Snowden’s endangering people’s lives, not a single instance has been produced where that has actually occurred.
Three, Mr. Snowden’s itinerary clearly shows he had no intention of staying in Russia. He was trapped there when the U.S. invalidated his passport.
Four, he ended up stuck for forty days in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. As Mr. Snowden joked--accurately, I think--, ‘Spies get treated better than that.’
Five, with the NSA having the surveillance capacity Mr. Snowden has described, they should already have been able to locate any phone calls, e-mails, or other contacts he had with Russian spymasters. No such evidence has been produced, which is a strong indication that such contacts never took place.
Six, nobody talks about Edward Snowden’s politics. Do you know why? Because he’s a libertarian, a free-market advocate, even an opponent of Social Security. He’s to the right of Ted Cruz! To think he’d spy for the Russians strains credulity. Beyond that, he appears to have been a hard-working, honest, model citizen. Believe me, if he had major skeletons in his closet, the administrations wouldn’t have waited five minutes before they posted them on billboards in Times Square.
Seven, the F.B.I. has already concluded that Mr. Snowden acted alone, and its conclusion was reported last week in the New York Times.”
“That’s a long list,” I said. “It’s always hard to prove a negative, but the case against his being a secret operative for a foreign power sounds awfully convincing. What’s the case on the other side of the argument? “
“Well, first, we looked at Mr. Snowden’s track record. His information has been accurate. He has been open about what he found and why he felt obliged to expose it. Now let’s look at the record of those attacking him. Snowden’s revelations made it clear that the NSA has lied in sworn testimony about the nature and extent of its spying.”
“They lied to Congress? To the people who are supposed to be representing us?”
“They sure did. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, lied under oath to Congress back in March of 2013, when he was asked whether the NSA collected ‘any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans‘ — and Clapper said, ‘No, sir ... not wittingly’. Then Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, admitted last October that his testimony that NSA surveillance had foiled 54 terrorist plots was bogus. One Republican congressman told Alan Grayson that he doesn’t even attend intelligence briefings anymore because ‘they always lie’. Grayson says that many congress members believe that the congressional intelligence committees go right along with the NSA, and are more loyal to the ‘intelligence community’ than to the Constitution. These committee chairs who attacked Snowden are working hand in glove with the NSA they’re supposed to be overseeing.”
“What evidence did these intelligence committee chairs offer on Sunday then? They must have had some good stuff if they’re so close to the spies.”
“No evidence, but a good amount of innuendo--which makes you think that there isn’t any evidence. Mr. Rogers implied that, because the U.S. government stopped Mr. Snowden’s flight in transit, resulting in his being stranded in Russia, he must have been spying for the Russians. Is that logical?”
“I’ll admit that sometimes I’m logically-challenged, but no, that doesn’t make any sense.”
“Mr. Rogers also implied that Mr. Snowden’s having a go-bag ready was proof that he was a spy.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, “you lost me there. What’s a go-bag?”
“Some people call them ‘bug-out bags,’ or ‘GOOD bags,’ for Get Out Of Dodge’,” explained Tom. “ They’re kits that people keep packed full of the things they would need to get through the next 72 hours if there’s an emergency or disaster. It would have been pretty standard for anyone in a position like Mr. Snowden’s to have one while working with the CIA and the NSA. If you arrested everyone who had a go-bag, the CIA and NSA would be half-empty.”
“That’s pretty thin, then,” I said. “What else?”
“I’m afraid that’s it.”
“That’s it? That’s nuts!” I said. “If you could convict people on flimsy stuff like that, you could sentence anyone for anything. I’ve got a scope-mounted Remington 700 for deer hunting. Does that mean somebody could accuse me of planning to assassinate the President?”
“Very good, Ace,” he said, with a slight look of surprise. “That’s precisely the kind of thinking I was talking about.”
© Tony Russell, 2014