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Saturday, September 07, 2013

Reading Snowden As ParrhesiastesThrough Le Carre and A Delicate Truth

Edward Snowden

The latest book – A Delicate Truth – is centered in modern Britain, on a supposed threat to national security and the use of dubious means towards a justifiable end; the challenge to an individual oppressed by the power of the state. It’s a political tale, appreciated across the political spectrum
On a sunny Sunday early in that same spring, a thirty-one-year-old British foreign servant earmarked for great things sat alone at the pavement table of a humble Italian cafe in London's Soho, steeling himself to perform an act of espionage so outrageous that, if detected, it would cost him his career and his freedom: namely, recovering a tape recording, illicitly made by himself, from the Private Office of a Minister of the Crown whom it was his duty to serve and advise to the best of his considerable ability. 

His name was Toby Bell and he was entirely alone in his criminal contemplations. No evil genius controlled him, no paymaster, provocateur or sinister manipulator armed with an attache case stuffed with hundred - dollar bills was waiting round the corner, no activist in a ski mask. He was in that sense the most feared creature of our contemporary world: a solitary decider: Of a forthcoming clandestine operation on the Crown Colony of Gibralter he knew nothing; rather, it was this tantalizing ignorance that had brought him to his present pass. (ADT p. 47)

This is Edward Snowden who becomes an employee of BoozAllen in order to steal secrets - the truth - from the NSA

This is not the situation Toby Bell, the reluctant whistle-blower, finds himself in by relentless circumstances. His awareness begins slowly, well, here is a quote explaining how.

In coded discussions in Whitehall's sealed basement rooms, new rules of engagement with suspected terrorist prisoners are cautiously thrashed out. ...The word enhance , once used to convey spiritual exaltation, has entered the new American dictionary, but its meaning remains willfully imprecise to the uninitiated, of whom Toby is one. All the same he has his suspicions. Can these so-called new rules in reality be the old barbaric ones, dusted off and reinstated, he wonders? And if he is right, which increasingly he believes he is, what is the moral distinction, if any, between the man who applies the electrodes and the man who sits behind a desk and pretends he doesn't know it's happening, although he knows very well?

But when Toby, nobly struggling to reconcile these questions with his conscience and upbringing, ventures to air them - purely academically you understand - to Giles over a cozy dinner at Oakley's club to celebrate Toby's thrilling new appointment on promotion to the British Embassy in Cairo....Oakley quotes his beloved La Rochefoucauld:

'Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, dear man. In an imperfect world, I fear it's the best we can manage.'(ADT p.53)

In a half-hearted effort to find excuses for Crispin, Toby even wondered whether, deep down, the man was just plain stupid....And from there, he wandered off into an argument with Friedrich Schiller's grandiose statement that human stupidity was what the gods fought in vain. Not so, in Toby's opinion, and no excuse for anybody, whether god or man. 

What the gods and all reasonable humans fought in vain wasn't stupidity at all. It was sheer, wanton, bloody indifference to anybody's interests but their own.(ADT p. 296)

"The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They'll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society. But they won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests." - Edward Snowden

And then they get Toby Bell:

The first blows were undoubtedly the most painful and the most surprising....But it was the hail of blows to his stomach, kidneys, groin and then his groin again that seemed never to end, and for all he knew it continued after he had lost consciousness. But not before the same unidentified voice had breathed into his ear in the same tone of command:

'Don't think this is over, son. This is for appetizers. Remember that.'

Le Carre

“I do think we live in most extraordinary period of history,” he says now. “The fact that we feel becalmed is the element that is most terrifying, the second-rate quality of leadership, the third-rate quality of parliamentary behaviour.”

That sense of correctness has a broader resonance, informing, when we discussed it recently, his views about Edward Snowden’s revelations of the extraordinary scale of US surveillance of its own citizens as well as those of other countries. He tells me he is horrified: “There seems to be no limit to the violations to their hard-won liberties that Americans will put up with in the catchall name of counter terror.” But he also recognises that “no country can allow its secret servants to whistle-blow with impunity”.

He has long disabused me of the sense that his family background might have been an impediment to joining the British intelligence services. The attraction of someone with a semi-criminal background was irresistible to the spooks, he says. They were looking for recruits with a broad sense of morality, individuals who were unanchored and wayward, who hankered for discipline (“his father’s a bit bent, we could use a bit of that”).

If the secret service produced so many bad eggs, he tells me, it’s because they looked for them.

Gove probably didn’t pick up on the book’s strong attack on the secret courts for which his government voted (allowing matters of “national security” to be heard behind closed doors). Le Carré is greatly concerned about such courts, which undermine the rights of some individuals while making it easier for others to make the wrong choices. 

 He “smuggles this kind of stuff” into his best-selling stories, conscious that subliminal influence lasts longer than a news story. There is a political agenda, born of personal experience.

Who is his greatest hero? Andre Sakharov, father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, who came  
to recognise the dangers of his own work (“He realised he’d given the bomb to a bunch of 


And if you have seen Dirty Wars you will know that american Special Ops are in 75 different countries in order to destabilize them. A country in chaos is an easy takeover to exploit their resources.

And the beginning of A Delicate Truth:

Forgive me, Minister: What field would that be, exactly?'

'Private defense contractors. Where've you been? Name of the game these days. War's gone corporate, in case you haven't noticed. Standing professional armies are a bust. Top-heavy, under-equipped, one brigadier for every dozen boots on the ground and cost a mint. Try a couple of years at Defence if you don't believe me.'(ADT p. 9)

Philippe Sands is a writer and barrister who teaches international law at University College. To comment on this article email magazineletters@ft.com

What I want to emphasize here is that Snowden is a parrhesiastes not a whistle-blower. Toby Bell is dragged into it by his conscience, Snowden by a compelling sense of duty from the beginning. to practice parrhesia.