Ten Miles Square

Blog

June 26, 2013 4:31 PM Journalism and Power

By Devin Castles

Earlier this month, Josh Marshall gave his much-cited take on the basic dividing lines for people on the surveillance state in general, and the Snowden leaks in particular. If for some reason you haven’t read it yet, you should, but here is a key passage that has gotten a lot of attention:

Here is I think the essential difference and where it comes back to what I referred to before - a basic difference in one’s idea about the state and the larger political community. If you see the state as essentially malevolent or a bad actor then really anything you can do to put a stick in its spokes is a good thing. […]
On the other hand, if you basically identify with the country and the state, then indiscriminate leaks like this are purely destructive. They’re attacks on something you fundamentally believe in, identify with, think is working on your behalf.
Now, in practice, there are a million shades of grey. You can support your government but see its various shortcomings and even evil things it does. And as I said at the outset, this is where leaks play a critical, though ambiguous role, as a safety valve. But it comes down to this essential thing: is the aim and/or effect of the leak to correct an abuse or simply to blow the whole thing up?
In Manning’s case, it’s always seemed pretty clear to me that the latter was the case.
Let me put my cards on the table. At the end of the day, for all its faults, the US military is the armed force of a political community I identify with and a government I support. I’m not a bystander to it. I’m implicated in what it does and I feel I have a responsibility and a right to a say, albeit just a minuscule one, in what it does. I think a military force requires a substantial amount of secrecy to operate in any reasonable way. So when someone on the inside breaks those rules, I need to see a really, really good reason. And even then I’m not sure that means you get off scott free. It may just mean you did the right thing.

Ryan Cooper and a number of others do an excellent job of explaining that at least for the last decade, one can make a strong case for the state as “essentially malevolent.” However it’s no surprise that a number of people would basically agree with Marshall on this. But apart from the moral merits of either side, I think it is quite problematic for a journalist to hold Marshall’s views on the state. This trust is eerily reminiscent to the approach of major news outlets during the early stages of the Iraq War, and that lack of skepticism helped lead to the rise of more critical alternative news sites, such as a little-known blog named Talking Points Memo.

Debating the proper level of trust and deference to give the government and military in the context of personal philosophy is greatly different than having that debate in the context of reporting on stories like the Snowden leaks. And Marshall’s post is a little difficult to evaluate on that scale, because he vacillates between speaking as a citizen and as a journalist. But approaching national security stories from the outset with the view that the government is generally pursuing good goals and needs a substantial amount of military secrecy to operate effectively, is going to produce an impossibly high bar for the kinds of leaks you are willing to pursue and publish.

Back to Home page

Devin Castles is an intern at the Washington Monthly.