Neil Macdonald: Obama's whistleblower conundrum

Twenty-nine-year-old Ed Snowden not only blew the lid off America's massive domestic surveillance program, Neil Macdonald writes. He also blew a hole in Obama's attempt to try to have it both ways when it comes to secrecy and national security.

Will the U.S. really have an open debate on domestic spying?

Pro-Ed Snowden demonstrators rally in New York's Union Square Park on Monday. The debate may be just beginning. (Richard Drew / Associated Press)

So U.S. President Barack Obama is suddenly mustard for a lively public discussion on whether the intelligence agencies he commands should be secretly collecting Americans' private phone and internet records. 

"I welcome this debate and I think it's healthy for our democracy," the president declared, after stories erupted last week describing how the National Security Agency has been logging just about every phone call, email, upload and download in the country for years. 

Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, elaborated on Monday: "The kind of technological advances we've seen when it comes to communications will only continue. And this is a matter that is absolutely appropriate for public debate." 

First, though, the administration would like to get its hands on the young man — a 29-year-old former technical assistant at the CIA — who leaked the story, and presumably lock him up for a few decades. 

Ed Snowden told two newspapers what the NSA has been doing, owned up to what he'd passed along and explained why he did it — he felt the American public should judge the program.

He has now disappeared from his Hong Kong hotel and is presumed to be on the run. 

"This is someone who for whatever reason has chosen to violate a sacred trust," fumed James Clapper, the former air force general who is Obama's director of national intelligence. "The damage these revelations will incur is huge." 

And there it is: The Obama administration's Janus head. 

One of its faces is all for openness and transparency and reining in the secret excesses of what author John le Carré calls the "Deep State" — the security-industrial complex that has expanded so relentlessly since 9/11. 

The other face is a creature of and spokesman for that same Deep State, and a stern hunter of those who would disclose classified information in an era of massive, overweening classification. 

The two Obamas 

In 2008, Obama rode to victory in good part by wearing the openness face, casting the Bush administration as intrusive, secretive hawks who had little regard for individual privacy or civil liberties. 

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifying before the Senate intelligence committee on March 12, 2013. Violating 'a sacred trust.' (Associated Press)

As a senator, Obama denounced the Big Brother provisions of Bush's post-9/11 Patriot Act, particularly its sections enabling the state to spy on Americans without their knowledge. 

After taking power, Obama acquired his other face. That face speaks far less, but when it does, it justifies Bush's policies. 

It uses the same justification as his predecessor, to the point of employing the same jarring characterization of "folks" who might want to commit acts of terror. 

That face is utterly uninterested in informed public debate on security matters. As the New York Times aptly noted on Tuesday, Obama has done none of the declassifying that would actually allow such a debate to take place. 

When lawmakers want to ask officials questions that might inform such a debate, Obama's security mandarins usually oblige them to do so behind closed doors, sworn to hold their answers secret.  Or these security mandarins just lie.

The same James Clapper who's been thundering about sacred public trust was recently asked publicly about the extent of National Security Agency snooping. 

"Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden asked Clapper on March 12. 

"No, sir," responded Clapper. 

"It does not?" prodded Wyden. 

"Not wittingly," said Clapper. "There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly." 

That was just three months ago, before a low-level technician who'd been working briefly for the CIA and more recently for the private contractor Booz Allen Hamilton proved Clapper a liar. 

Lot of the whistleblower 

Clapper has now unleashed the hounds, and, reportedly, charges are being prepared against Ed Snowden. 

America's newest whistleblower, Edward Snowden. (The Guardian/Associated Press)

The director of national intelligence would probably prefer "traitorous swine" to "whistleblower" when it comes to defining Snowden, but the latter term might fit the young man better. 

As renowned First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams noted Tuesday, Snowden appears to have been motivated by conscience, not profit. He walked away from a $200,000 job and a comfortable life in Hawaii. 

"I can't help but admire him," said Abrams. 

But the hard reality is this: In America, you can become a hero blowing the whistle, but you will endure persecution, and maybe prosecution, first. 

A few famous examples: 

Daniel Ellsberg. The former Pentagon employee leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, disclosing America's secret wars in Laos and Cambodia along with a litany of government lies to the American people. 

Richard Nixon's officials charged Ellsberg criminally, and illegally wiretapped him. He was eventually acquitted, and officials later acknowledged the Pentagon Papers were inappropriately over-classified. 

This week, Ellsberg praised Ed Snowden. 

Mark Felt. Perhaps the ultimate whistleblower, the former top FBI agent was "Deep Throat," the Washington Post's principal source in the Watergate scandal. He remained silent until shortly before his death in 2008, thus escaping reprisal. 

Frederic Whitehurst. In the mid-1990s, the former FBI agent, an expert in the science of explosives, disclosed shoddy standards of investigation in the World Trade Centre and Oklahoma City bombings. He was forced to hire attorneys to defend himself from FBI retaliation. 

Joe Darby. In 2004, Darby, an Army reservist, was the first to alert the national media to the horrific abuses committed against Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. 

His home was vandalized and he went into protective military custody, where he remains. The secretary of defence ordered him in writing not to discuss his treatment. 

Joseph Wilson. In 2003, Wilson, a former ambassador, authored an article in the New York Times discrediting the Bush administration's contention that Saddam Hussein had been trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. 

Bush officials mounted a smear campaign against Wilson, going so far as to "out" his wife, Valerie Plame, a covert CIA operative, ending her career.

The list goes on and on. It would have to include Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder currently holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, and his most famous source, U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, currently on trial for aiding the enemy.

The fact is, American law encourages whistleblowers and, often, they go down in history as courageous people of principle who made their country better. 

Their nation values them, but not their government. 

Wherever Ed Snowden is at the moment, he can take some comfort in knowing he will likely join that honour roll eventually. First, though, he will almost certainly pay the painful price required to get there.