Letter to the editor: Rebuttal to Prof. Stone on Snowden

By Letter to the Editor

As the Maroon reports in “Snowden Broke the Law, Says Law Prof (1/14/14),” Professor Geoffrey Stone stated that “there are costs as well as benefits from what Snowden did…. Many of those costs damaged the United States in its relations with other nations. It may damage the infrastructure of the Internet, causing countries to put up more barriers to ordinary access. It made it more difficult for the nation to protect itself.”

The statement makes me understand that one of the costs is other nations being upset at the U.S. because its programs are now public, and that the backlash of this data siphoning will lead to less “ordinary” access from the U.S. to other countries (although modern U.S. law treats classical wiretapping as an extraordinary judicial process). However, the underlying claim is that what upset these countries isn’t the action, but that the U.S. got caught, as if the issue was the new transparency of these programs.

This may well be the case with collaborating governments, who are now in the awkward position of having their lackey attitude on full display. But for the rest of the world, the issue is that the leaks uncovered the extent to which national expectations of privacy (the truly ordinary modus vivendi, until now) were violated on an international plane. As with Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning), whose Cablegate first uncovered systematic (albeit personal) diplomatic spying in summits and within embassies, the Snowden leaks brought other allegations to surface: ones that tear at the delicate fabric of diplomatic relations and break not just with arguably diffuse international law, but with old customs, such as the inviolability of diplomatic communications.

Furthermore, if the charge of economic spying were imputed to, say, China, the U.S. would not pull back any punches in exercising consequences. But to lay all of these programs at the feet of Snowden, and say that it is his fault U.S. relations with the world have been hurt, misses the irony of the situation. He may have broken the law, but he didn’t create these programs. He merely transgressed his government’s right to privacy secrecy in transgressing your, Merkel’s, and Brazil’s own privacy. And now we’re all in the same boat. We’ll have to wait until later today to hear from the President on how much accountability gets spread around.


P.S. In writing this opinion, I was asked to address why I wouldn’t want my real name to run next to it. One person looking over it thought including my name would be a good idea, since it could turn into a lively debate. The Chicago Maroon kindly respected my wish to remain anonymous given my sense of unease, which was partly informed by the tone that debates on leaks in this country have taken. Although freedom of expression is held as a guiding idea in principle, support of leakers’, journalists’, and skeptics’ dissent has waned. Partly, as I have tried to elaborate above, any ensuing debate should focus on U.S. policy, not just on Snowden, and putting my name on this might result in pressure to state my personal feelings on his actions under an un-nuanced, “with us or against us” framework. Finally, while this community is plural and open to debate, the nature of permanent, online publication escapes our intellectual culture, and this makes me feel at future risk. I hope you, like the editors, understand. Thanks for the space, and thanks for reading.