Madeleine Albright and the Problem of Snowden
Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, is probably the closest I have to a personal hero. She became Secretary of State at a time when my own interest in international relations was budding. And my response to the perennial adult question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” switched from President of the United States to the Secretary of State. It almost seems odd to us now, but when she was appointed to the position there were many who believed that a woman could not be effective in that role. They argued that the leaders of those “other societies” that devalued women’s contributions would not be willing to work with a woman or take her seriously. Albright demonstrated how ridiculously wrong they were.
Of course, this doesn’t mean I completely agree with her positions on international affairs. In particular, I believe she overvalues military interventionism and its ability to address humanitarian crises. Yet, these disagreements in no way reduce my admiration for her and her contributions to the U.S. Thus, I was pretty excited to have the opportunity to listen to her speak Wednesday night at UCLA’s Royce Hall.
It was a great event, and it is not my intention to detract from all the wonderful elements of her speech, the conversation with Dean Gilliam, and her responses to audience questions. Of course, posts of effusive praise are usually rather boring, and as an academic, I tend to see points of disagreement as the locus of constructive dialogue. In that vein then, I wanted to mention how struck I was by her vehemence towards Edward Snowden. She declared he was a traitor and had done irreparable damage to U.S. national security. The emotion communicated through her tone was as harsh and unequivocal as her words.
Personally, I have quite conflicted feelings about Snowden. It is difficult to evaluate whether his actions have overall produced more harm or more benefit to the American people. I am bothered, however, by those who want to frame the issue as black and white. Maybe I am too much of a follow the rules sort of girl, but I instinctively dislike the leaking of classified information. On the other hand, I do not see any other way the NSA privacy abuses would have come to light.
The NSA data collection was clearly an overreach by the state, an example of “national security” interpreted too broadly, and does not even appear to have been effective at identifying threats. Moreover, the release of this information has begun to lead to badly needed reforms concerning government data collection. Certainly, the conversation about how best to balance our desire for security alongside privacy concerns must be a public one, and it is troubling, though not surprising, that our political leaders did their best to prevent that from occurring.
Albright’s feelings on the issue are all the more surprising when one considers her background. Her father, Josef Korbel, was a Czechoslovakian diplomat who fled the Nazis shortly after Madeleine’s birth. Later, their family was forced into permanent exile after the communist takeover. Authoritarian governments derive much of their control by spying on their citizens and limiting access to information. This is not to incite false comparisons of the current U.S. government to these types of regimes. But they do serve as important reminders of what the “freedom of the press” – a term that should not be conflated with today’s media empires, but the public access to information and the freedom of expression — stands for in a democracy. Our “freedom” depends on checks to government power, even when it genuinely believes it is acting in the nation’s best interest.