In November I missed this essay in the NYT Review of Books by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, in which he gives an account of and commentary on the Guardian‘s involvement in the Snowden leaks, as well as the British government’s response to this involvement (see a subsequent letter exchange with an M.P. here). Amitai Etzioni has just written a reply to Rusbridger’s essay for The Atlantic. It’s quite curious. Etzioni says Rusbridger is trying to “justify his publication of leaked documents,” which itself is a misleading gloss on what is mainly narrative, including some critique throughout. On the basis of this dubious framing, Etzioni’s reply advances the following thesis:
Rusbridger’s first argument, a libertarian claim, is contradicted by his second. The second claim, a liberal communitarian argument, leaves a major question unaddressed. And the third argument is so specious that one must wonder if Rusbridger realized his case was unconvincing and ended up grasping at straws.
Etzioni’s piece isn’t well written, so it’s somewhat difficult to individuate the arguments. But here is how he seems to characterize Rusbridger’s first argument:
Rusbridger argues that the problem is not his publication of state secrets but, rather, the American and British governments’ attack on free speech and the freedom of the press. … If Rusbridger had stopped [at a subsequent quotation from Snowden], one would inevitably conclude that he agrees with those who read Benjamin Franklin as stating that those who give up even a bit of freedom in order to have security deserve neither—that the collection of such data is wrong on principle and should be stopped.
First, as far as I can tell Rusbridger does not make the contrastive claim Etzioni attributes to him. More importantly, it seems to me that one would “inevitably conclude” the extreme position attributed only if one were in some way stupid or inattentive while reading Rusbridger. As far as I can tell, it’s clear from Rusbridger’s essay up to and including the Snowden quotation that his problem is with surveillance in its current expansive form, not in principle. But read it for yourself and see if I’m missing something.
The first extreme argument in favor of publishing the Snowden documents (which, according to me, Rusbridger doesn’t make) is in contradiction with a second argument. Here is how Etzioni characterizes the second argument:
Rusbridger … goes on to note that democracies “do have determined and resourceful enemies” against whom they need to defend themselves. And he even draws on a communitarian notion that typically troubles civil libertarians, namely that there is a need to balance the concern for the common good with the concern for liberty. And he acknowledges that “there is plainly a tension between the secrecy required in much intelligence work and … transparency.”
If one follows this line of argument one must accept that some limitations on the freedom of the press are justified.
Of course this view (which Etzioni agrees with) is only in tension with an extreme position held by neither Rusbridger nor his colleagues (e.g. Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras), although it is held by some of their left critics (e.g. Cryptome). But notice something even stranger: this argument is supposed to be a second attempt to “justify … publication of leaked documents.” But this argument is a concession to the Guardian’s critics, not an argument in favor of publishing the documents.
Rusbridger’s supposed third argument is characterized by Etzioni as follows:
Rusbridger suggests that the problem with modern surveillance is not necessarily evil government officials but young hotshot technical types who invent new forms of surveillance that old folks—those who run the agencies or oversee them—don’t understand. … In making this claim, Rusbridger seems to have in mind British MPs, who indeed have very few staffers to back them up. But the situation is different stateside, where the 24,000 staffers for members of Congress include an army of technically savvy young people within their ranks. The threat of the young techies is a novel argument that I doubt we shall hear much more about.
First, note once again the invented contrast; as far as I can tell, Rusbridger never makes the contrastive claim that begins this excerpt (in fact, if government officials weren’t a problem, then incompetent regulators wouldn’t be either!). But second and more importantly, “young hotshot technical types” are neither villains nor heroes in Rusbridger’s piece; for instance, he explicitly describes a case where such a type helped him understand the documents. This is part of a larger theme in Rusbridger’s piece, namely that “There is quite a lot of trust involved in the world on which Edward Snowden has pulled back the curtain.” In some cases, as Rusbridger notes (and defends with quotations and examples), such trust is unjustified. In any case, like the second argument, this is actually not an argument for releasing the Snowden documents; rather, it is an argument against certain cases of trust in the regulatory system – which does not require that all regulators are incompetent or don’t have help.
The issue of trust relates to a final point that should be made about Etzioni’s own independent claim that bookends his essay. He begins by saying that the Snowden leaks have ”caused major damage to the national security of the U.S., the U.K., and their allies, according to their governments.” Yet by the end of the piece he says that “Alan Rusbridger has not moved us an inch closer to answer these questions. But he has helped to undermine our security and that of many others, and he is not done.” Can anyone pick out the dropped qualification? Here’s a much more difficult – perhaps sisyphian - task: can anyone identify any evidence or even argument Etzioni offers for dropping the qualification?