Chad Ochocinco's Lessons for Edward Snowden

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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Bloomberg View columnists Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson met online y esterday to chat about the National Security Agency and the U.S. security state. Below is a lightly edited transcript.

Margaret: Ramesh, did you see this video of Chad Johnson, formerly known as Chad Ochocinco, getting 30 days in jail because he patted his lawyer's butt in a Florida courtroom? It clarified for me how I feel about Edward Snowden. Stick with me.

People in authority can be arbitrary and capricious, as Ochocinco discovered. Still, my knee-jerk reaction has always been to trust those in charge. All my experiences with authority have been good -- with my family, my neighborhood, the nuns at school (let's not mention the priests for now). My general feeling, as you know, is that government is a benign force in our lives to help us do those things we can't do for ourselves. I give authority the benefit of the doubt, an odd stance for a journalist who started out working for Ralph Nader.

All of which leads me back to my initial reaction to Snowden, which is that he's a selfish, narcissistic, spoiled kid who thinks he should be running the world.

Ramesh: My own faith in authority, like that of many other people, has declined a lot during the last dozen years or so. Maybe that's a bad thing, as David Brooks argued in the New York Times yesterday. But we've seen so much irresponsible, incompetent and otherwise terrible behavior in government, in corporate America, in the Catholic Church, and even the military (you've been writing a lot about its mishandling of sex-abuse cases) that it's hard to retain that faith. Snowden does seem at first glance to be every bit as narcissistic and deluded as you suggest. But that too undermines my confidence in the authorities: They chose to trust in the discretion and judgment of this guy? And then they want me to believe that these information-gathering programs can't be abused?

Margaret: I've lost a lot of faith since those halcyon days when priests and four-star generals were gods. But back to Snowden: I still would trust the worst member of the Senate over a 29-year-old living la dolce vita in Hawaii. He thinks he's a god because he can write code, which is about as difficult as me learning Spanish -- hard to get the r's right, maybe, but perfectly doable. I hear he's been offered asylum by the newly single Vladimir Putin, who's been baring his pecs and happy to poke a stick in America's eye any way he can.

Ramesh: Hey, there's nothing wrong with living in Hawaii! (I keep hoping one of the political conventions will be held there some day so I can go cover it.) And Snowden isn't the only person with questionable judgment or ethics who has been involved in this surveillance. What about James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence? Senator Ron Wyden told him beforehand he was going to ask him in a hearing about his surveillance of Americans. Clapper lied about it, Wyden gave him an opportunity to correct the record, and he didn't. Supporters of these programs keep saying that they've been debated, there are checks and balances, and legislators have been briefed. But we haven't had much debate, and what we have had has been contaminated by lies. I'd be more supportive of these programs if I felt I could trust the people running them.

Margaret: That was a painful moment. Clapper should know how to fudge an answer without perjuring himself. He should resign.

Ramesh: The other thing that is sapping my confidence in the government's surveillance programs is all the reassurances we're being given, which aren't reassuring. So, for example, the president says that the government isn't listening in to the content of our calls -- but apparently it has become easy for sophisticated analysts to glean all kinds of information just from the data that the government is getting. And Prism is supposed to just be targeting foreigners -- but they're trying to make sure that's what they're doing, using methods they think are 51 percent effective. And everything they're doing is under layers and layers of secrecy. Even the interpretation of the Patriot Act that allowed the Verizon order is a secret, which just seems nuts. And that gives me a little bit of sympathy for Snowden's decision to leak.

Margaret: So many people don't think there's anything to be gleaned from their list of calls made and the duration. They are more afraid of getting maimed at the Boston Marathon. The few days after the attack, I was happy there are all those cameras everywhere, even when they capture me going through a red light. I also take your point on the 51 percent. In his first night as host of "The Daily Show" on Monday, John Oliver pointed out that's a coin toss plus 1 percent. I'd like the higher authority to have a better record than that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net