The U.S. national security establishment was thrown into turmoil last week with the revelation it was engaged in widespread “data mining” of Americans’ phone calls and Internet traffic to spot unusual patterns that might indicate a terrorist attack.
The source of those stories? Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old high school dropout turned computer genius, who witnessed the programs at work in his job as a contractor for the National Security Agency. “I think it’s an act of treason,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said of Snowden’s acts. “He is a hero,” insisted John Cassidy, a writer for The New Yorker.
Which is it? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the Red-Blue America columnists, debate.
MATHIS: “I’m neither traitor nor hero,” Edward Snowden said last week. “I’m an American.”
If only that simplified the question. Americans are like any other people — capable of both great heroism and monstrous evil. And history shows the same is true of the American government.
Which is why — given what is known about Snowden at this point — the inclination is to place Snowden a little closer to the “hero” side of the line, albeit tentatively and cautiously.
The NSA’s programs, after all, are not the first in which the American government has spied on its own people. During the Vietnam War and civil rights protests of the 1960s, the FBI and CIA kept a close watch on Americans and political groups whose only crime was to dissent from mainstream political thought.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover used his knowledge to bully politicians and, alarmingly, to encourage Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide.
The FBI’s program of spying on American dissenters, dubbed COINTELPRO, was exposed only because activists burglarized an FBI field office in Pennsylvania and released the program’s files to the media. That burglary was plainly a criminal act; it also just as plainly defended the American people against the invasive overreach of their government.
Truth is, we don’t really have an example of a massive spying program that both kept Americans under watch and respected their individual rights to privacy and liberty over the long term. History shows that powerful programs, while perhaps well-intentioned, almost inevitably succumb to abuse and corruption.
No one has disputed Snowden’s own account that he acted to expose the government “criminality” to its citizens. “Last week, the American government happily operated in the shadows with no respect for the consent of the governed,” Snowden said, “but no longer.”
Yes, there’s a touch of hubris in that statement. His choices of refuge — China and Russia — also raise questions. But it ultimately appears that Snowden betrayed the U.S. government, not the American people. The two aren’t always one and the same.
BOYCHUK: Snowden is no hero. When he talks about the NSA’s “existential threats to democracy” from the comforts of a Hong Kong hotel room, within earshot of spies for communist China, under the protection of one of the most undemocratic regimes on earth, he’s either joking or lying.
In any case, Snowden is a fool. But is he a traitor? Merely revealing the existence of a program that collects vast amounts of data from perhaps hundreds of millions of Americans by itself isn’t treasonous.
Many Americans were at least dimly aware of the NSA’s snooping when it first came to light during the Bush administration.
On the other hand, revealing the existence of U.S. efforts to hack Chinese networks, while on Chinese soil, might cross the line from mere whistleblowing to giving aid and comfort to America’s enemies.
But a better question than whether this Snowden character is a traitor may be why the United States government has become so powerful and yet so inept that the Edward Snowdens of the world have access to its deepest, darkest secrets?
As Democrats and Republicans have rushed to defend the NSA’s snooping as essential to protecting Americans from terrorism and Lord knows what else, Americans worry that omnipotent government is becoming ever more incompetent and unaccountable.
With good reason. When National Intelligence Director James Clapper appeared before the U.S. Senate in March, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden asked him whether the NSA collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” “No, sir,” Clapper replied, before adding, “Not wittingly.”
Not wittingly? Not acceptable. If Snowden’s more outlandish claims are correct, then somebody at the NSA could have read this sentence before I put the period on it. Yet nobody had a clue this high school dropout with a high security clearance would spill his guts to the press from a hotel room in Hong Kong? Treachery may be the worst of all sins, but it might not be the worst sin in this case.
Reach Ben Boychuk at firstname.lastname@example.org, Joel Mathis at email@example.com.