It’s not always right to keep your word

There’s nothing virtuous about keeping a powerful liar’s secret, and those in power should learn from whistle-blowers.

Senator Dick Durbin could take a cue from Edward Snowden, writes author Charles Davis [AFP]

Edward Snowden was trusted with keeping a secret. When he took a job working as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), he voluntarily took an oath pledging to not divulge classified information about the US government’s electronic surveillance programs. He broke that oath. And he’s threatening to break it some more.


Derided by the political establishment as a mere high-school dropout who came to begrudge the work he had been doing for years, Snowden accepted great personal risk when he decided to leak top-secret documents revealing that the NSA was collecting the communications of pretty much everyone who uses the Internet. He gave up a cushy life working for a defence contractor in favour of a life on the run that’s taken him from his home in Hawaii to a hotel room in Hong Kong to an airport terminal in Russia.

When Snowden broke his oath and leaked evidence of the NSA’s appalling and frightening surveillance capabilities, the evidence wasn’t ignored, which ought to be a lesson. But he didn’t get much thanks for it

Snowden saw grand criminality and decided to say something about it, which only those he exposed would consider an actual crime. The public, according to polls, supports him. If any figure in the political establishment had Snowden’s courage, we would have known about the NSA’s gobbling up of telephony metadata – the time, date, location and length of every phone call made in America – years ago. We would have known that the US government can tap into a Skype call or email thread with nothing more than a broad authorisation from judges on a secret, rubber-stamping court.

We don’t have people like that in Congress. We put people like that in prison.

Oath keepers

There’s nothing virtuous about keeping a powerful liar’s secret. Helping a government mislead the public, even if you’d really rather not, doesn’t make one a tragic hero. It makes you an accessory. Yet, that’s what even the most strident congressional critics of the government’s spying operations did.

For years, Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall warned that the administration of President Barack Obama was using “secret law” to reinterpret the already broad PATRIOT Act to legally justify an even broader set of surveillance programs than a rubber-stamping Congress had originally intended. In a 2011 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, they charged that “Justice Department officials have – on a number of occasions – made what we believe are misleading statements pertaining to the government’s interpretation of surveillance law.”

But the senators did nothing about it. On the Senate floor, Wyden said the US government’s surveillance programs “should never be a secret from the American people,” but he chose to keep that secret. Why? Because he took an oath. His hands (and tongue) were tied. As The New York Times reported, Wyden and Udall “had to be content to sit in a special sealed room, soak in information that they said appalled and frightened them, then offer veiled messages that were largely ignored”.

Telling the truth works

When Snowden broke his oath and leaked evidence of the NSA’s appalling and frightening surveillance capabilities, the evidence wasn’t ignored, which ought to be a lesson. But he didn’t get much thanks for it.

“Mr. Snowden broke the law,” remarked Senator Dick Durbin, a liberal Democrat from President Obama’s home state of Illinois. “They told him, we will give you access to the most important and delicate classified information in America,” he said. “You got to take an oath that you will never disclose it. We take the same oath, members of Congress. He broke his oath. He committed a crime. He needs to pay a price for it.”

James Clapper, director of the NSA, also broke an oath when he flatly denied that his agency was purposely collecting the electronic communications of US citizens. But Durbin, the second highest ranking member of the Senate, hasn’t called for him to pay a price. Powerful men with careers to keep in mind always aim lower. So Durbin has instead attacked a powerless whistle-blower, describing Snowden as a loser – “a man of limited education and limited life experience” – who he wouldn’t even hire to work in his Senate office, seeking to shift the debate from spying to how such a loser could gain access to information on that spying. It’s safer that way.

But Durbin, of all people, should know better.

Loyalty can kill

On April 25, 2007, Durbin took to the Senate floor to reveal a shocking secret: As a member of the Intelligence Committee during the run-up to the war in Iraq, he knew the Bush administration was lying.”

Snowden’s third week in Moscow airport

“I would read the headlines in the paper in the morning and watch the television newscasts and shake my head because, you see, just a few hundred feet away from here in a closed room, carefully guarded, the Intelligence Committee was meeting on a daily basis for top-secret briefings about the information we were receiving, and the information we had in the Intelligence Committee was not the same information being given to the American public,” he said.

In particular, Durbin highlighted the case of Iraq’s “aluminium tubes,” which the Bush administration often claimed could have no other purpose than to deliver a nuclear warhead to the heartland, despite strong objections from US government scientists. Inside the committee room, this disagreement was acknowledged, with some members of the administration “saying, of course not, it is not the same kind of aluminium tube.” Outside the room, however, “members of the administration were telling the American people to be fearful of mushroom-shaped clouds.”

“I was angry about it,” Durbin continued. But why did he wait nearly 5 years to tell anyone? Well, “Frankly, I couldn’t do much about it,” he said, “because, in the Intelligence Committee, we are sworn to secrecy. We can’t talk outside the door and say the statement made yesterday by the White House is in direct contradiction to classified information that is being given to this Congress. We can’t do that.”

Yes, you can

The thing is, the only thing that stopped Durbin from breaking his oath was not any law, but his own cowardice (Durbin later excused his behaviour by saying that he could have been kicked off the Intelligence Committee or been sent to the prison he wants Snowden housed in). The law didn’t stop Bradley Manning from exposing war crimes, and he was just an Army private.

Durbin, were he man of greater integrity, could have come out and said the White House was lying to the American public, just as Senators Wyden and Udall could have done with respect to the NSA’s spying. He could have dared the Bush administration to prosecute him, which would have possibly stopped an invasion (just imagine the headline, “US Senator Charged with Leaking Facts that Undermine Case for War”). But Durbin kept his oath. And then hundreds of thousands of people died.

Generally speaking, loyalty is a good thing. But loyalty to the corporate state isn’t exactly the same as loyalty to friends or family, a fact both Snowden and Manning recognised, despite – or arguably, because of – their “limited education and limited life experience”. Unlike a US senator, our recent crop of whistleblowers weren’t conditioned by years in Washington to value their oaths to powerful institutions over their duty as members of the human race to defend the lives and liberties of the powerless. Their innate sense of justice hadn’t been driven out of them by an undue respect for the law and deference to a system that treats exposing criminality as a crime.

Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning would make terrible senators. For that, we should be grateful.


Charles Davis is a writer currently based somewhere in the Los Angeles underground.