Venture capitalist and Netscape founder Marc Andreessen told CNBC that Edward Snowden is the textbook definition of a traitor, and argued that mass surveillance is what the NSA is supposed to be doing — although he admits that spying on U.S. citizens is troubling

photo: All Things D

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.

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.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of All Things D

  1. Tom Foremski Thursday, June 5, 2014

    Hubris is a terrible affliction. It never stays silent.

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  2. Marc, I accept and understand your concern about our intelligence leaks and with the knee jerk reaction and desire to call Snowden a traitor. Just like you I’m concerned over the “immediate” situation and it’s impact on US Business and Government. However, no change is without pain, and the more buried the disease the harder it is to deliver the medicine. I believe that in the future Snowden will be considered a hero, as opposed to a Benedict Arnold. Someone needed to be the escape valve. It’s also true that much of the information Snowden released is only bad “because we now know about it”. Punishing him for that is like punishing a 5 year old for being spoiled and belligerent. It’s the parents (Government) that should be punished. After all, if the government hadn’t been illegally spying on US citizens, this trouble would likely never have occurred.

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  3. I don’t think Snowden is a traitor. He just confirmed what we all suspected was going on anyway. The other countries are doing it to us and we are doing it right back. Corporate espionage is a big part of business.

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  4. Of course Andreessen has taken this view. He’s on the Board of Facebook, which is one of the world’s largest commercial surveillance machines which steals privacy from its users whenever it gets the opportunity to do so, like the very recent transgression where “Facebook has been forced to defend a ‘creepy’ new feature that allows it to activate your smartphone’s microphone and listen in.”

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  5. And Andreessen is competent to comment on Snowden why, again?

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    1. Jason McKenzie Friday, June 6, 2014

      Oh he’s very intellectually competent, but he has no moral credibility.

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  6. What innocent American citizen was harmed by NSA doing their job of monitoring for threats so that something could be done prior to mass bombing or other? Snowden has changed the focus from known enemies to an imagined one (NSA) and in the process handicapped NATO countries from preemptively protecting their citizens. His revelations have harmed American businesses and created general friction and backlash. The US government, which includes the NSA, is of the people by the people for the people. The citizens are the ones who lose out with this misplaced Orwellian conspiracy world mindset. Post Snowden I feel more vulnerable. If I were a terrorist, I would feel more at ease.

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    1. Your delusion may be the most complete I have ever seen Dave! When any organization for the people starts disrespecting and negating the rights of the people is when it becomes the enemy of the people,


      The US government are the baddies Dave and have been for a long time not only does the hubris of the government astound me, but the hubris of idiots like Andreessen who are in bed with them is twice as insulting. I dont buy into this totalitarian Oligarchy, but if you want to give away liberty for security, then as once was reflected:

      YOU deserve NEITHER!

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      1. Michael West Saturday, June 7, 2014

        Upper caps always make me shiver in my boots, especially when it is coming from folks who are quick to tell other folks what they do or not deserve. In today’s enlightened world, we can enjoy both liberty and security. This false dichotomy meme has been making its way around the Internet for so long nobody even notices it anymore – it is like a noxious smell that the mind turns off seven minutes after it wafts in the room. “Life in a state of (anarchy) is nasty brutish and short” (Hobbes) – with emphasis on the nasty and brutish part. Upper caps omitted for the sake of civility.

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    2. JenniferDawn Friday, June 6, 2014

      I agree with Dave here completely. Everything you say here is true. There are plenty of idiots that scream about their precious ‘liberty’, even though this has been going on for years now, and you never were denied your ‘liberty’.

      Let’s just see if they change their tune when the Al-Qaeda EMP truck bomb takes out Silicon Valley – probably not though.

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  7. Jason McKenzie Friday, June 6, 2014

    Color me shocked. I almost soiled myself in laughter when I read his comment about “cognitive dissonance”. The problem is, the sociopathic soft fascists running this country into the ground like Andreesen don’t have cognitive dissonance because they don’t value humanity in general, only their tribe of fascist oligarchics.

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  8. Nice to hear someone in the tech industry actually talking some sense about this issue for a change. Of course the NSA was designed to collect information on foreign threats to the US. The nature of collecting this information requires mass collection for later analysis, even if “later” is near real time. Snowden’s fault was not trying to start a discussion about the appropriate limits of surveillance and its possible effects on individual rights. It was his taking a data dump of every possible detail he could sweep up and handing that over to press for publication. Trusting that reporters and news outlets would behave responsibly, or even that if they did they could adequately protect information they decided not to publish, was at best astonishingly naïve. In fact, it was knowingly criminal, as Snowden himself has demonstrated by his actions in fleeing prosecution. He could have initiated the discussion he wanted by merely speaking publicly about the nature of the excesses he felt were there, and not performing a personal data dump of millions of pages classified information.

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    1. Michael West Saturday, June 7, 2014

      What M said. End of story.

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  9. James GordonGekko Gillmore Friday, June 6, 2014

    Marc’s my hero. And this is disappointing–because I doubt he believes this. He’s lying to sound in line with all the politicians. He knows he has to sound like them so they don’t all instantly become enemies of Silicon Valley. Perhaps he’s making the right decision. But I would have liked to see him take a stand.

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  10. Thomas Greed Friday, June 6, 2014

    “Some hotshot publicist for a political startup (USA) once opined,”A NON-Vigilant Press guards against the TYRANNY of Freedom, the pointless and petty PURSUIT of Happiness, and the utter and relentless NUISANCE of an INFORMED CITIZENRY.”,,,,,,,We hold these LIES sacrosanct, in a sacred DEITY-ENCRYTED TRUST of Self-Evidence.”—Hunter S. Anton, Author of the Novel Johnny Dirtbag “Movie Star”
    “Andreesen won’t answer “Springloaded” questions; he probaby won’t care for “Jack Springload”, the character in the novel Johnny Dirtbag “Movie Star”…WHAT A WHIMP!”—The New York Times

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