Marc Andreessen on Edward Snowden, acts of treason, mass surveillance and Silicon Valley

While freedom-of-information advocates and critics of the U.S. government’s policies on mass surveillance were busy celebrating the 1st anniversary of Edward Snowden’s massive NSA leaks, venture capitalist and former Netscape founder Marc Andreessen was pushing a somewhat different message. In his view, Snowden is a traitor whose acts — along with the resulting confusion they have created about what the NSA is doing — have endangered U.S. foreign relations and U.S. companies, and therefore he shouldn’t be celebrated as a hero.

Andreessen made some of his remarks in a video interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin for the CNBC show Squawk Box (which is embedded below), and then followed up later with a discussion on Twitter, which I have edited into a Storify module and also embedded below. In the video, which is also embedded below, Andreessen says Snowden is clearly a traitor for leaking the NSA documents to then-Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald and his partner, filmmaker Laura Poitras:

Obviously he’s a traitor — if you look up in the encyclopedia ‘traitor,’ there’s a picture of Edward Snowden. He’s like a textbook traitor, they don’t get much more traitor than that… Why? Because he stole national security secrets and gave them to everyone on the planet.

It’s not clear whether Andreessen is right about the open-and-shut nature of Snowden’s case, however: as a number of legal experts pointed out during the Twitter discussion, treason typically requires that the accused gives aid or military secrets directly to the enemy, whereas Snowden gave his information to the media (this issue of “aiding the enemy” and whether it includes the media came up in the trial of Chelsea Manning for leaking documents to WikiLeaks).

Andreessen also says in the video that he found the shock with which most people greeted the NSA revelations to be surprising, since spying is what the organization was designed to do from the very beginning:

If you actually followed the NSA, if you actually read the books and the articles and understood the history of the NSA, I think you’d generally assume that they were doing pretty much everything that has come out… I thought they were spying, I mean that was my impression… I thought everyone knew that.

Following the interview (which Gawker Media suggested was designed primarily to bolster the value of the giant technology companies that Andreessen either invests in and/or partners with), the Netscape founder was questioned on a number of points by veteran technology journalist Dan Gillmor, as well as Tow Center fellow Alexander Howard and a number of others, including me. Gillmor began by asking whether Andreessen was more upset that U.S. companies were hacked, or that this was revealed to the world by the Snowden documents.

Puzzled by your logic, @pmarca — are you more upset that US is hacking US-based companies to spy or that it was revealed to the world?

— Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor) June 5, 2014

In the discussion that followed, Andreessen argued that the understanding of what the NSA does was warped by the initial reporting on the Snowden slides, which suggested that companies were voluntarily providing carte-blanche access to their servers. Subsequent reports have said that companies like Google and Facebook only provide the information that is required under government orders, although the exact process by which this occurs remains somewhat murky.

Andreessen also argued that much of what Snowden did involved the surveillance of non-U.S. citizens, and that in his view this is exactly what the NSA is supposed to be doing, and therefore not the kind of illegal or even immoral behavior that would justify a whistleblower like Snowden revealing the information in the way he did:

Not everyone agrees, however: Howard, for example, noted that mass surveillance of any kind raises free-speech and human rights issues, and others noted that the behavior of the U.S. government was of interest to its people regardless of who exactly was being spied on. Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation called Andreessen’s views “abhorrent,” while Greenwald argued that by the same reasoning, disclosures about torture at the Abu Ghraib prison shouldn’t qualify as whistleblowing because the victims involved weren’t U.S. citizens.

Andreessen said that the issues raised by the NSA’s behavior were complicated — since recording the phone calls or other activity of foreign agents often involves capturing the behavior of American citizens as well — and that collecting and storing “metadata” about online behavior was also not a black-and-white question. The Netscape founder also pointed out that his company, the first browser maker, was a vocal advocate of strong encryption.

In the end, as one user pointed out, the question of whether Snowden is a traitor or a hero — that is, whether his leaking of the NSA documents was justified because of the behavior it revealed on the part of the government — is largely a side issue: ultimately, the important question is whether snooping en masse on U.S. citizens is wrong, and if so what should be done about it. And that question has yet to be answered, by either Marc Andreessen or anyone else.

Images courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen and All Things D