At the South by South West conference (SXSW for short) in Austin, TX - which started as a music festival but eventually expanded to add a technology arm - the ACLU hosted Edward Snowden via video conferencing. Demonstrating that when they love someone, they too can ask softball questions that can rival Fox News, the ACLU's Ben Wizner (who moderated the discussion) showered Snowden and his media accomplices - most notably Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras - with praise, and despite displaying awareness that many think of Snowden as a traitor, did not touch a single critical question of the NSA leaker with a 10-foot poll.
I could go through what all was asked and answered, but suffice it to say they spent a lot of time scratching their heads about encryption of email by default (hint: it exists, and the panel's assertion that people will pay for it is bunk, because for the most part, people do not), and waxing poetic about how Edward Snowden's revelations contributed to tighter corporate data security (which must be why the Target data breach, and a slew that followed happened after Snowden's revelations).
As Snowden appeared in front of a giant replica of the American Constitution as he sat in a secure location in Russia (whether that was a green screen with ACLU's handy work is anyone's guess), however, the important thing to notice really was the set of questions Snowden was not asked - either from the ACLU panel or the carefully vetted questions picked from the audience. And the first one should have been a follow up:
Why did Snowden lie about government access to big metadata being more dangerous than corporate access to big data?
Snowden - and his ACLU supporters - contended that government access to impersonal metadata (i.e. the NSA has a record of who you called and that you called, but it doesn't know who you are) is more dangerous than corporate access to huge files of personal data. As justification, they used a line of reasoning that is old, tired, and has already been debunked. Snowden claimed that the government has the power to deprive one of their liberties and even lives, and private entities do not.
This is, of course, farcial. As I have shown before, in the interconnected world in which we live today, government power to deprive one of one's life or liberties is far from exclusive - as liberals should well and good know from the harms caused by the oil and coal industry, and the ability of financial institutions and health insurance companies (at least till recently) to effectively wreck havoc on individual liberties.
In fact, on the contrary, as even the ACLU moderator admitted, in the US, the rule of law keeps the government from depriving individuals of their liberties without due process - a process he may be reminded private industry has no obligation to follow.
Second question - does Edward Snowden believe in the rule of law, and if so, does he believe that he is bound by it to face trial for his actions?
The ACLU panelists were rather vocal about how, if Snowden were to return to the United States, every lawyer out there would want to take up his defense. We know that tons of ACLU lawyers certainly will. So why still hide behind the red curtain in Russia? After all, if the ACLU is as confident in this assertion as it is in its lawyers, they should be able to proceed with the trial pronto and have Snowden acquitted, it seems to me. It's either that, or Snowden's "whistleblower" defense is weak, and his defenders know it, despite their outlandish bluster. Perhaps his defenders are aware that to be a whistleblower, one needs to uncover something illegal, and Snowden hasn't done so.
Of course, the only possible other answer is that Snowden does not believe in the rule of law, at least not when the law is inconvenient to him, and neither do his supporters.
Last, but perhaps the most important question that wasn't asked: Given Russia's long standing "atrocious" record on civil and human rights (as admitted by the ACLU moderator), its recent anti-gay actions and invasion of Ukraine, just how does someone who claims to be a person of conscience praise Russia and take Putin's shelter just so they can stay out of an American courtroom?
I understand how Snowden's defenders - including the ACLU - do not want to bring up not just the ethical reprehensiveness of Snowden's asylum in a country like Russia, but Snowden's open, voluntary and broad praise for Putin's government. But the truth, inconvenient as may be, is that the person the ACLU is trying to establish as a hero of civil liberties has this to say about Russia:
Russia... [has] my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless. By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world.
For a moment, let's not care that Edward Snowden is so craven that he claims that applying the rule of law and charging him and giving him his day in court is a "human rights violation". Let's even ignore the fact was Snowden has no legitimate grounds to seek asylum under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which specifically disallows the right to asylum if one is facing legitimate criminal charges, and espionage is a legitimate crime in every country.
Let's forget all that. But for someone they are trying to elevate on the pedestal of human rights and civil liberties, how does even the ACLU square defending a man not just taking Putin's shelter but heaping praise on him? After all, according to both the ACLU and Snowden himself, Russia did not force Snowden to turn over his stolen intelligence secrets, so it's difficult to believe that Putin forced Snowden to write those praiseworthy words. Either that, or... I'm quite sure Snowden's defenders don't want to consider the alternative.
There is a current of defenders of Snowden who claim that their hero shouldn't have to answer for Russia's crimes against humanity and civil rights, and that he's forced to hide in Russia because of the threat of imprisonment in the United States should he be convicted. Not only does this show blatant disregard for the rule of law and blur the line between whistleblowers - who have the courage of their convictions to face the consequences - and common thieves, who run, it flies in the face of everything they claim they stand for. Snowden may not decide to commit the crime Russia is, but he has decided to hide himself behind and heap praise on an international criminal, rogue nation. "I want to escape consequences of my actions" is not a good enough excuse for patriot, and it is hardly a good excuse for a decent human being.
No, I didn't actually expect that the ACLU would ask Snowden any difficult questions - moral, ethical or otherwise. But it would have been nice for them to show that their - and the audience's - hero worship did not trump the very human rights, dignities and civil rights and liberties they claim to stand for.