Edward Snowden and the Difference Between Pirates and Privateers

Pirates and privateers engage in the exact same kinds of actions. In fact, the only difference between a pirate and a privateer is which side you’re on and which side is defining the law. Wikipedia points out the nice difference between the two: “The actual work of a pirate and a privateer is generally the same (raiding and plundering ships); it is, therefore, the authorization and perceived legality of the actions that form the distinction.” So, by analogy, is Edward Snowden a pirate or a privateer?

As a contractor working for a private firm, there is a sense in which Snowden was working under a U.S. government “letter of marque” that allowed him to aid in the surveillance of American citizens. Had he been working outside the auspices of the U.S. Government, his actions as a defense contractor would have been very illegal. This much is obvious. In that sense, he was, at first, a privateer or State-endorsed mercenary. He didn’t have to take an oath like other federal workers and his only obligation to the American civil government was a business obligation.

What happened when Snowden leaked information about the NSA was that he changed allegiances. Whereas before he was a privateer for the U.S. government, in the end he proved to be a privateer for the people—or a pirate in the eyes of the State, depending on which side you’re on. Did he do what was illegal? He was already doing what, under normal conditions, would have been illegal. If you view it from the side of the people, he is a criminal turned ally. If you view it from the side of the civil government, he is an ally turned criminal.

And make no mistake, there are sides. As much as Obama would like you to believe that the government is you and you are the government, the Snowden controversy makes it clear: those who work for the people work against the civil government and those who work for the civil government work against the people. It may not have always been this way. It is certainly this way now.

The civil government itself created this circumstance when it jettisoned the general rule of law. If the civil government is allowed to operate under a different set of rules than the people, then two laws are created—one for the people and one for the State. As long as the civil government and the people abide by the same rules, we are on the same side. But when two laws are created, two sovereignties are created as well. And when two self-interested sovereignties have a conflict over the same territory, war is inevitable. All war is the result of competing law systems trying to operate in the same jurisdiction.

The civil government has been operating for years as if they are at war with you. You are a “target,” remember? And, being at war with you, they have thrown aside the rules for themselves. It is hypocritical for them to demand that you play by the rules they have long since exempted themselves from upholding. In other words, it is ridiculous for them to wage war on you, and then criticize you for waging war on them.

In some ways, Snowden acted as if the rule of law still applied as equally to the civil government as it did to the people. He believed that leaking information to the press was the only way to hold the civil government accountable for its illegal actions. But he also had to know that the rules couldn’t and never had applied. As a privateer, he knew he was raiding and plundering. He knew that the civil government had already thrown aside the rule of law. But when he looked up at the enemy flag one day and saw “We the people…” waving from the mast, perhaps his conscience stung him. And on that day he ceased being a privateer for the civil government and started being a pirate for the American people.

More and more, it seems that pirates and hackers, conspiracy theorists and extremists are the only people on the side of the people. The numbers of people included in those groups is swelling, but it is the civil government (the apparent “right” side of the law) making the designations.  We know that our Founding Fathers were King George’s “pirates” and “rebels.” If history is repeating itself here, whose side will you be on?