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I was surfing channels the other night and came across former CIA director James Woolsey declaring, in high moral dudgeon, that NSA leaker Edward Snowden “should be prosecuted for treason [and] hanged by his neck until he is dead.”
Woolsey’s remark led me to think about where I had heard such righteous hypocrisy before. The competition was fierce, but I settled on the late eighteenth century, when the imperial British Navy harried alleged mutineers and ship jumpers to the far corners of the globe.
Like Snowden, British sailors back then could not safely complain through channels about the brutality of their captains. The system was stacked against them.
Ed Snowden and his supportive reporters, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, along with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, now know that exile from the United States is the price they must pay for revealing abuses of governmental power to the American people. Putin’s Russia has become Ed Snowden’s Pitcairn’s Island – a sorry place of refuge from the relentless pursuit of the world’s greatest super power.
These exiles know that Woolsey’s CIA, like Britain’s imperial navy, recognizes few limitations on its powers. It has kidnapped people from the United States and Europe for torture in foreign lands and killed American citizens abroad with remote-controlled drones. No one is safe from the long arm of its injustice, just as no one was safe from British sea power in the eighteenth century.
For example, the unlawful search of Bolivia’s presidential plane in Austria, when the CIA suspected that Snowden might be on board, is directly analogous to the attack on, and search of, the U.S.S. Chesapeake for fugitive seamen by the H.M.S. Leopard in 1807. That affront to American sovereignty triggered the War of 1812, but militarists like Woolsey would not forgive Bolivia for reacting similarly today. Like the British imperialists we once fought, he believes that might makes right, and that’s all there is to it.
Woolsey also believes that the United States is at “war” with Edward Snowden. That’s right. The United States is not just at war with al Qaeda, but with an unarmed, loyal American citizen who sought to inform the public, before it is too late, that the NSA, CIA, and FBI are working to destroy our constitutional system of checks and balances, including our free press, by creating an unaccountable system of mass surveillance from which no one can hide, not even for the best of reasons.
Woolsey, an attorney, knows full well that treason is a wartime offense and involves aiding an enemy, not disclosing governmental wrongdoing. But he charges Snowden with this heinous crime because he knows that by waving the bloody shirt of war he can persuade a fearful society to justify almost anything, including the destruction of its liberties.
Woolsey would like us to think of him as a patriot, trying to keep Americans safe from “traitors” and their free press. In truth, however, the former CIA director is what in World War I we would have called a war monger, because of his incessant advocacy within government circles of military solutions to political problems in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Woolsey is also a wartime profiteer, whose advocacy of war, spying, and secrecy has directly benefited the corporate clients who have paid him handsomely for years. These include Booz Allen, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin, which have made millions spying for the NSA, and the Paladin Group, a venture capital firm that makes millions off of the Department of Homeland Security.
The secrecy system that shields people like Woolsey from accountability is as corrupt, as brutal, and as unjust in its own way as the British Navy was when it impressed seamen from our ships. Chelsea Manning, now serving a 35-year sentence for aiding Wikileaks, can testify to that. “Company men” like Woolsey will not acknowledge the analogy, but it is true.
Indeed, with consummate hypocrisy, the former CIA director demands that Snowden be hanged for exposing government and corporate wrongdoing, while urging the Obama administration to block a criminal investigation of CIA torture. Under these circumstances, it is probably not too harsh to point out that on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, James Woolsey would have been a pig.
Christopher H. Pyle teaches constitutional law and civil liberties at Mount Holyoke College. He is the author of Military Surveillance of Civilian Politics and Getting Away with Torture. In 1970, he disclosed the U.S. military’s surveillance of civilian politics and worked as a consultant to three Congressional committees, including the Church Committee.