The Man of the Year

How can the biggest news story of 2013 be so overblown -- and so monumentally important -- at the same time?


After an extensive if wholly non-transparent debate conducted inside my own head, I am proud to announce that this column’s 2013 Man of the Year is…Edward Snowden. The man who disclosed the details of the National Security Agency’s programs of secret surveillance narrowly won out over Hassan Rouhani; our hope is that the opportunity to take the 2014 prize will spur the Iranian president to make significant concessions in upcoming nuclear negotiations.

Snowden’s candidacy was in doubt, but received a major boost at a panel discussion during a Foreign Policy conference held earlier this month, when James Baker, deputy director of policy planning at the Pentagon, was asked about the issues which "keep you and the Joint Chiefs up at night." He listed five: the rise of China, the Arab Spring, the fallout from the financial crisis, the effect of budget cuts on defense spending, and the NSA leaks — which, Baker said, perhaps to counter disbelief, "rise to the same level."

It is extremely disturbing to think that senior military officials spend as much time worrying about the NSA revelations as they do about China. Inside the U.S. military and intelligence community, the leaks are seen as a national security and diplomatic calamity, and Snowden is seen as a traitor.

The Man of the Year, of course, can be a villain, so long as he is a very consequential one.

But the harm Snowden has done has been blown up to ludicrous proportions. No evidence has yet emerged of crucial intelligence compromised by his disclosures, or for that matter of a case in which the NSA’s vast collection of private electronic data halted a terror plot. Has Snowden damaged relations with allies? Thomas Shannon, President Barack Obama’s former assistant secretary of state for Latin America, responded to Baker’s assertion by denying that the leaks had done any lasting harm to alliances in the region.

Shannon then added a remarkably eloquent impromptu summation of the meaning of the leaks. They "give us some insight about what the 21st century is going to be like," Shannon said. "It’s really not about espionage. It’s about how new forms of technology, new forms of communication, and new forms of analyzing that information are going to radically change our understanding of privacy, radically change our understanding of political agency and behavior patterns, and what they mean for our societies as they try to connect to one another."

Snowden may or may not be a hero — we really don’t have enough insight into the choices he made and the motives that drove him to render so profound a moral judgment — but his revelations have forced a debate that otherwise would not have existed. In recent interview in the Washington Post, Snowden said, "I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself." Such a fundamental debate does, by its nature, change society.  

In the most obvious sense, the debate makes our society more democratic. The U.S. government has concluded that on the immense issue of surveillance it needed to be accountable only to itself. (Other states are, of course, equally opaque.) In a democracy, even decisions about the principles governing secrecy need to be publicly determined. There is reason to hope that society will use the opportunity of the debate to "change itself." In the very first case in which the NSA’s program to collect telephone "metadata" on Americans was adjudicated in federal court, Judge Richard Leon issued a preliminary injunction strongly indicating that he found the practices unconstitutional. "I cannot," he wrote, "imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying it and analyzing it without judicial approval."

The bland reassurances by senior intelligence officials that Americas have nothing to fear from the massive surveillance dragnet have now received the contempt they deserve. In a report issued last week, Obama’s panel on the NSA surveillance program, which included former senior intelligence officials, concluded that the mass collection from metadata "creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty." The panel proposed keeping that data in the hands of phone companies or "a private third party," requiring substantial public disclosure of information-gathering programs, sharply restricting surveillance on foreign targets — and especially foreign heads of state — and requiring the NSA director to be confirmed by the Senate. The panel suggested that the next director should be a civilian, which would be a first. (Of course, the latter recommendation is highly unlikely, since the president has already indicated his willingness to disregard another of the report’s recommendations: that the director of the NSA be separate from the director of the military’s Cyber Command.)  

The report bears reading not merely for its bullet points. The authors observe that the word "security" applies every bit as much to the security of the individual against intrusion by the state or others as it does to the "national security" interests protected by the state through, among other means, intelligence-gathering. The state must not imperil the one in the name of the other. The two must be balanced; and yet, the authors note, some prohibitions against intrusion in the name of national security, such as those that suppress dissent and infringe on personal liberty, are "foundational," and not to be "balanced" against the collective good of safety. That, the authors note, is precisely what has often happened at moments of national crisis. Some powers given to the state in the aftermath of 9/11, they conclude, "unduly sacrifice fundamental interests in individual liberty, personal privacy, and democratic governance."

These are profound observations; they recall us to ourselves. Barack Obama, the candidate, promised to do just that when he vowed to "write a new chapter in our response to 9/11." Obama did not do that; he deferred, far more than he or we expected, to the dreadful logic of "national security." Edward Snowden has now, willy-nilly, given him the opportunity to write that new chapter. We should know in a few weeks whether or not Obama will accept the invitation.

Snowden is almost certainly the most important whistle-blower in American history. The vast trove of WikiLeaks documents exposed by Chelsea Manning shone a glaring light on the underside of diplomacy, but did little to change our understanding of the world. Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to expose the Pentagon Papers profoundly changed the relationship of the press — and of the American people — to government, but did little to change the course of the war, which was his goal. Who else compares?

Ellsberg’s 1973 trial was dismissed over government misconduct. Manning is now serving a 35-year sentence. Does Snowden belong in jail? There’s no question that he has violated the terms of the Espionage Act by disclosing state secrets, though it seems likely that he has not committed espionage. But if you break the law for reasons of conscience, you must be prepared to live with the consequences. Yet the immense good that has come of Snowden’s law-breaking presents a powerful case for leniency. In an ideal world, he would be permitted to plead guilty to a violation of the Act and then sentenced to a form of community service in which he would use his skills to help the cause of reform.

The award ceremony is to be held in the transit corridor of the Sheremetyevo Airport, at an undisclosed date. 

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit." @jamestraub1
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