Debating Snowden

For some reason, debates about Snowden are thick on the ground these days, and I’ve joined a couple of them.  The most fun was the Oxford Union, which has been preparing future Parliamentarians (and Prime Ministers) all around the British Commonwealth since 1823.  The Oxford Union debate was “This House would call Edward Snowden a Hero.”  My argument to the contrary is here:

Highlights of the debate included the arguments of Jeffrey Toobin, with whom I agree on nothing but Snowden, and P.J. Crowley, lately of the Clinton State Department — both of them well worth watching.  I also thought Chris Huhne and Chris Hedges did particularly well in support of the motion. And Charlie Vaughan, the Aussie student who stepped in to support our side, already shows signs of being a formidable politician. They can all be found here.

The motion carried, but narrowly (something like 212-175), which I thought a moral victory with a university audience outside the United States. (And an audience that thinks very highly of itself; Even at Harvard I would have expected a laugh when I declared that being a toady was the key to debating success and then immediately told the audience that it was the most intelligent I had ever appeared before.  At Oxford, no one saw anything remotely humorous in the suggestion.)

UCLA also held a debate, on “Snowden — Patriot or Traitor,” a choice I wasn’t fond of, since I think there’s an element of intent in being a traitor that is hard to judge from this distance.  Luckily the school left room for a third choice, “Neither,” so I encouraged the audience to vote for anything but patriot.  I was paired with Judge James Carr of the N.D.Ohio, formerly of the FISA court.  Our opponents included Jesselyn Radack and Trevor Timm.  Bruce Fein argued for “neither” though his attack on the government was unrelenting.

UCLA took two votes, one before and one after the debate.  Gratifyingly, the room flipped after hearing the argument.  The vote was 43-33 in favor of “Patriot,” at the outset, but it declined to 34-51 when the debate was done.   Here’s the (rather long) UCLA debate from beginning to end.  (I show up at 29:00 and again at 1:26:20.)

I’ve also started to take straw polls of audiences on the question “Snowden, Good or Bad?”  Snowden doesn’t do well in that binary choice.  He lost about 10:1 at a Suits and Spooks conference for civil liberties and security researchers three weeks ago, and he lost about 4:1 at a conference of minority corporate counsel where I spoke a week ago.

All this suggests that Snowden is wearing out his welcome with the American public as he compromises intelligence program after intelligence program without producing anything more shocking than the fact that NSA is an aggressive, effective collector of intelligence in a dangerous world.

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Eugene Volokh · March 24, 2014

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