Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Bill Maher Thinks Edward Snowden always "says something completely nuts"

Bill Maher took on Edward Snowden during an interview with Glenn Greenwald on Episode 303 of Real Time with Bill Maher. Maher offered praise for both Greenwald and Snowden but also said the following:

"Every time [Snowden] opens his mouth, he also says something completely nuts"

Maher offers two quotes which he attributes Snowden to highlight his case:

"These programs were never about terrorism. They were about social control and diplomatic manipulation"
"They can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you've ever made, every friend you've ever discussed something with" 

First, it would be wise to assure the validity and context of both statements to be sure that Snowden was not misquoted or taken out of context.  The first quote was taken from Snowden's open letter to the people of Brazil, published on December 17th, 2013, which he wrote in the hopes of gaining asylum in that country. The second quote was taken from an interview on June 6th, 2013 when Greenwald first broke the story about NSA spying. Both quotes are plainly stated laments about the U.S. government's indiscriminate use of data mining and suveillance capabilities (then again, pretty much every thing Snowden says follows a similar idealistic backdrop). Greenwald also appears to fully acknowledge the claims are accurate depictions.

Second, are these quotes really evidence that Snowden is nuts? Or better said, does he have any evidence that the NSA program is actively pursuing social control, manipulation and can go back in time to scrutinize the peanut butter sandwich you made for lunch two years ago? Well, Carl Sagan widely popularized the quote, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", presumably an adaptation from philosopher David Hume's quotes, "a wise man...proportions his belief to the evidence". Snowden is certainly making an extraordinary claim. The accusation of social control is arguably the most graven and heinous accusations one can make against a democratic government. Therefore, it remains to be determined whether he proportions his beliefs to the evidence at hand.

The NSA program and The PRISM program it employs does indiscriminately collect and store massive amounts of data. Yet there is no evidence that the programs have been abused in such a way that could be described as the government exercising social control upon its citizens.  NSA director Michael Hayden dismissed NSA abuses in an op-ed piece for the New York Times and deemed plausible by Senator Dianne Feinstein back in 2009 although the NSA eventually admitted in 2013 to some abuses of power which usually included deciding whose information to collect on criteria that were far too broad in scope. This is an issue that needs attention; there is no doubt about it. Oversight and regulation of NSA practices need to continue to be scrutinized and re-scrutinized. But to label these abuses as social control is a claim that is a step too far. Yes, the government is collecting and storing too much information, but that does not mean they are actively employing Aldous Huxley 'Brave New World' style social control. There is no evidence that a peanut butter sandwich was made by a government that wanted its citizen to eat a peanut butter sandwich and not a hungry person who actually wanted to eat peanut butter.

I am with Snowden, generally speaking, when it comes to reigning in the power of the NSA, but whenever he spews out bigfoot-style conspiracy theories such as the quotes above I cringe. I wish he would chose his words better,temper his rhetoric with the facts or show hard evidence that U.S. citizens are mindless drones in a government created reality.

It also doesn't help when Greenwald responds by saying, "what's crazy is that you think it's crazy". No, Greenwald, it's crazy because the evidence doesn't support it. Maybe that'll change. Greenwald and Snowden do have millions of pages of NSA documents, after all, and have proven Sen. Feinstein wrong. So do the some with Bill Maher.