The debates in the media over Ed Snowden should be viewed as more than “is he a patriot or a terrorist?” because they are setting the tone for this year’s topic. Over the weekend allegations surfaced that Snowden leaked information to the Russians and Chinese, endangering the lives of M16 agents and divulging classified information that could jeopardize entire American and British operations by revealing techniques and locations of assets. If this is true, it certainly diminishes the credibility of Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and others who are at the forefront of whistle-blowing on the surveillance techniques of the Five Eyes (US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), and will likely make arguments about the need to maintain classified information for security purposes highly persuasive. However, I think it is wise to look at this issue from the perspective as if the allegations against Snowden are false. In this article, I’ll discuss source qualification debates, the issues that non-falsifiability bring to the topic, and the necessity of tracking the Snowden debate throughout the year.
Before delving into that issue, let me disclose, albeit briefly, my bias about Snowden. Not only am I a liberal skeptical of the security state and the military industrial complex, I also a hold reverence for the constitution. Given that, it should be little surprise that when Snowden was willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of the First and Fourth Amendments that I would side with him. Many of the criticisms of Snowden have been proven wrong because he, unlike fellow whistle-blowers Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, was careful with how and to whom he divulged information. Predictions of Snowden causing terrorism and diminishing American credibility are only true in that he exposed that the US was spying on the leaders of other countries.
The Snowden debate will have a larger impact on this year’s topic than many have predicted. Yes, much of his leaks are about foreign operations, but many leaks apply to the topic, for instance meta-data collection and PRISM. Beyond the affirmatives that Snowden made available, we are also offered a unique chance to look at how we should debate sources, and we can briefly look at the allegations of the past week as proof of this.
The Sunday Times, which broke the story about Snowden leaking documents to China and Russia is a Rupert Murdoch owned paper. Many of Murdoch’s news agencies have been criticized for fabricating and/or sensationalist in their reporting and are conservative-leaning (think Fox News), giving them motive to act on information that is not fully vetted. This is proven by the article in question because it only sites one British intelligence official who has not been named; this was particularly devastating when Tom Harper, the chief writer of the story, was embarrassed on CNN by saying “We don’t know to” most questions. Greenwald wrote a response to The Sunday Times article, dismantling it a line-by-line fashion. Rather than responding to criticism with facts, The Sunday Times has attacked Greenwald’s website firstlook.org with allegations of perjury.
This is not just a question of who do you trust, but also how do we verify facts? If Harper is unwilling to out his source, which he is fully justified in doing, how do we know whether statements of fact can be verified? This offers a unique nexus point with this year’s topic, because there will be many instances when statements of fact cannot be questioned because either a) they are fabricated or b) it is classified information that the public is unaware of. Maybe Snowden leaked docs to the Russians and Chinese and is guilty or treason like many think, maybe the Murdoch-owned newspaper got ahead of themselves and published an article without the ability to thoroughly check facts, how will we know? Another theory, from the left leaning Wired, is that the Chinese and Russians already had the information by hacking into the NSA and that US is using Snowden as a scapegoat instead of admitting their vulnerabilities. Earlier in June, a Vice article established that there is a bipartisan group that supports damaging Snowden’s “credibility in the press and the court of public opinion.” The attacks on Snowden are only going to increase with time, which will not only call into question his credibility, but will also provide a backdrop of excuses for the US surveillance regime; knowing when to call out information as being too conservative, too liberal, or too bizarre could prove vital in winning debates.
I am stumped as to how debaters should deal with the fact that much of the topic is non-falsifiable. My best suggestion is that debaters use their research and critical thinking skills to evaluate the sources. The best way to do that is simple: pay attention to what’s going; follow Greenwald on Twitter (@ggreenwald), set up an RSS feed that tracks the more objective news agencies (NYT, NPR, BBC), and occasionally check in on what is occurring in conservative media. Until we know for a fact whether Snowden is working with other governments, all we can do is critically analyze source material and engage in qualification debates. There will be moments in the season where the topic could radically change, and being able to thoroughly vet information to a judge could prove critical in winning debates.
Cites to the hyperlinks above
CNN. Reports: Russia, China have files leaked by Snowden. June 14, 2015. www.cnn.com/videos/us/2015/06/14/tom-harper-nsa-files-snowden-howell-intv-nr.cnn.
Greenwald, Glenn. THE SUNDAY TIMES’ SNOWDEN STORY IS JOURNALISM AT ITS WORST — AND FILLED WITH FALSEHOODS. June 14, 2015. https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/06/14/sunday-times-report-snowden-files-journalism-worst-also-filled-falsehoods/.
Harper, Tom, Richard Kerbaj and Tim Shipman. British Spies betrayed to Russians and Chinese June 14, 2015. http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/National/article1568673.ece.
Leopold, Jason. June 4, 2015. Exclusive: Inside Washington’s Quest to Bring Down Edward Snowden. https://news.vice.com/article/exclusive-inside-washingtons-quest-to-bring-down-edward-snowden.
Oberlander, Lynn. Notice of Infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act 1998 (DMCA). June 15, 2015. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2101948-news-uk-dmca-notification-first-look-productions.html.
Schneier, June 16, 2015. China and Russia Almost Definitely Have The Snowden Docs. http://www.wired.com/2015/06/course-china-russia-snowden-documents/.