NSA Leaks: Is Snowden a Hero or a Goat?

There is a lot of debate going on about the NSA leaks and whether Snowden is a patriot or a traitor. Is he a whistleblower or a self-righteous leaker?

Snowden’s coming-out party, while in Honk Kong, was chronicled by Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald in a couple of interviews published by The Guardian. Recently, The New York Times published a thrilling backstory about how that meeting came about in “How Laura Poitras Helped Snowden Spill His Secrets.

In his news conference on August 9, President Obama proposed restructuring the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to provide a privacy advocate. The Wall Street Journal characterized it as a “significant about-face” because just a few months ago he had defended the program saying, “I think on balance, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about.”

And today The Washington Post reported that the NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year according to an internal audit and based on documents provided earlier this summer to The Post by Snowden.

It is worth noting that the Fourth Amendment related to unreasonable searches and probable cause was introduced in Congress by James Madison in 1789, nearly a century before telephones and a couple of centuries before emails were invented.

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The NSA was established by President Truman to continue U.S. efforts that had led to breaking German and Japanese codes in World War II. According to NSA, Executive Order 12333, originally issued 4 December 1981 (by President Reagan) charges NSA to “collect (including through clandestine means), process, analyze, produce, and disseminate signals intelligence information and data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes to support national and departmental missions,” according to its website.

I am all for transparency and restraints on vast government powers. However, here are my thoughts on the delicate balancing act:

  1. President Obama’s statement to make NSA’s surveillance program more transparent is used by many talking heads as an after-the-fact justification for Snowden’s actions. That is hardly an argument. By that twisted, self-fulfilling “logic,” one could easily justify the 9/11 attack because it generated a new normal through an incredible breadth and depth of introspection, arguments, reviews, reports, calls for reform, changes, new laws, and, of course, finger-pointing!
  2. There are millions of citizens with some level of security clearance. They probably come across some level of classified information every day. Imagine, even if a small percentage of them went Snowden on us and started leaking sensitive information because they objected to something or the other—especially after signing their life away to keep this information confidential in order to get the security clearance in the first place. It would make a mockery of the entire national security apparatus.
  3. The Washington Post acknowledged that when it came to the NSA incidents, “Most were unintended. Many involved failures of due diligence or violations of standard operating procedure.” I was actually impressed by the thoroughness of the internal audit. The NSA official is right in saying, “You look at a number in absolute terms that looks big, and when you look at it in relative terms, it looks a little different.” If we are going to look for perfection in any entity, government or otherwise, or in any person, we will continue to be disappointed. Feel free to raise your hand if you have never exceeded the speed limit.
  4. People often talk from both sides of their mouths. They want the government out of their lives until something happens in their own backyard and now they need help from the government. And then the government can’t act fast enough for them. They would be the first to do Monday-morning quarterbacking and harshly criticize the government if a terrorist plot were to be carried out. As President Reagan said, “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours.”
  5. Edward Snowden: “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things.” How is that working out?

Trade Snowden for Pussy Riot anyone?

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