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Saturday, August 23

James Bamford's shattering conversations with Edward Snowden

Of all the people who might interview Edward Snowden, James Bamford is the logical top choice. But just because of this Bamford would have been the U.S. government's logical choice for the closest surveillance of anyone in the public eye who might conceivably speak with Snowden in person for publication.

It took him nine months and considerable trouble to arrange a meeting with Snowden in Moscow. Yet the long wait worked out to his advantage because he was able to study everything that had been written about Snowden in those months, all Snowden's comments during that period, and assess the questions other interviewers had put to Snowden. 

And just because he is James Bamford, the man who'd written more for publication about the National Security Agency than anyone else and closely studied the agency for decades, Snowden was willing to take successive security risks in Moscow in order to talk with him at length, over a period of three meetings.

The breaks in the periods allowed Bamford to avoid what the French call the Staircase Moment: those brilliant thoughts you should have voiced during the dinner party but didn't occur to you until you'd left.  Those moments are an occupational hazard for journalists; there's nothing like thinking of a great question four minutes after you've been ushered out the door.

Having been ushered out the door twice before his last meeting with Snowden, James Bamford had the luxury of getting the Staircase Moment out of his system before the conversations ended.

Yet if one knows nothing about Bamford's history, the one question he said he wanted Snowden to answer above all else would seem an odd choice, even a waste of interview time.  Snowden had already exhaustively explained to anyone who would listen why he'd stolen and made public copies of the most sensitive trove of secret government documents in America's history.

That is just why Bamford begins his account of his talks with Edward Snowden, which are written up as the cover story for the September issue of Wired magazine, by reminiscing about his previous visits to Moscow and his own experiences with the NSA. By the time he wraps up his account, it's clear that Bamford's burning question, as he called it, was directed as much at himself, at who he was at Snowden's age, as it was at Snowden.

These two men are not like Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald, who were seemingly born with a great distrust for all forms of authority and never saw praise for a government they couldn't turn into an indictment. Bamford and Snowden were born to serve their government; these are law and order men, the kind who form the backbone of a nation's military and police forces. 

What could provoke such men into extreme actions to take their government to task?  Was it something in themselves that caused them to break every code of conduct that supports a nation's security services?  Or something they perceived about American government actions that was so awful conscience demanded the strongest remonstrance?

The most complete answer is found in the two most unethical and unfortunately illuminating psychology studies in U.S. history: the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment.  It turns out that given the way human nature is built, there are just some among us that no matter how well-intentioned and law-abiding will transform into monsters when given even a small amount of authority that can't be challenged, or when instructed to obey such authority.

What we also know from the experiments is that there is no way, no way at all, to predict who among us will fall prey to the obverse of humanity's most noble characteristics: the ability to take charge in a crisis and make the tough and even ruthless decisions that no one else wants to make, and the ability in a crisis to unquestionably obey authority no matter the cost to oneself.

So important to our race's survival are these characteristics, any attempt to purify them of their dross would only result in a greater evil than their dark side represents. That is our lot, the dilemma we can only bear, the price we pay for free will.

And so James Bamford's burning question for Edward Snowden, what he really wanted to know, is whether either of them could have become Keith B. Alexander.  The answer, never made quite explicit in Bamford's account, is maybe but they didn't.


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