The fact that former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden decided to go public with his grievances against the U.S. government is certainly brave and bold.
People can and will accuse Snowden of many things. But no one will ever accuse him of not having the guts to stand up for what he believes.
Whether or not Snowden should be regarded as a “hero” for exposing what he believes is horrible intelligence gathering abuse by the U.S. government, however–as some are already suggesting he should be–remains to be seen.
Snowden has certainly made some startling claims about the scope of the U.S. intelligence and surveillance programs.
Most notably, Snowden claims that, as a 29 year-old security contractor, he had both the legal authority and the technological ability to “wiretap anyone — from you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President.“
If that’s true, that is indeed very startling.
Snowden also claims that the National Security Agency now intercepts and records almost all global communications, and that these recorded communications can be easily accessed:
“…the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested [by the NSA] without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.”
Now, the NSA–or FBI, DOJ, or even your local police department–have always been able to get access to all of this information for U.S. citizens, provided they have a warrant from a judge allowing them to do so and provided you or your service providers have retained these records. But what seems new, based on Snowden’s description, is that the government is now maintaining its own records of all this information and, if I understand Snowden correctly, can now access and use any of it without a warrant.
If that’s true, it’s certainly worth asking whether we really want the government to be able to do that. It’s also worth asking whether the the government really does have the legal authority to do that–or whether it has gone way beyond what the lawmakers intended.
But, I, for one, would like some confirmation that what Snowden is saying is true before I denounce the government.
And some of the other things that Snowden has said have certainly made me wonder whether he isn’t just viewing all this from a perspective that mainstream Americans might consider, well, extreme.
Asked why he decided to leak classified information to the media, for example, Snowden said the following:
“I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things … I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”
Asked whether surveillance might help deter or prevent terrorism, Snowden appeared to suggest that we shouldn’t pay so much attention to terrorism:
“We have to decide why terrorism is a new threat. There has always been terrorism. Boston was a criminal act. It was not about surveillance but good, old-fashioned police work. The police are very good at what they do.”
Asked whether he sees himself as “another Bradley Manning,” the U.S. Army private who sent a boatload of classified U.S. documents to Wikileaks, Snowden expressed nothing but admiration for Manning:
“Manning was a classic whistleblower. He was inspired by the public good.”
To address these statements in reverse order…
Bradley Manning may have been “inspired by” his own personal view of the “public good.” But, personally, I’m not convinced that what Bradley Manning did was actually good for the public. I don’t think it was terrible for the public. And it was certainly interesting to read some of those diplomatic communications. But I didn’t see anything in them that made me think they were so important that they were worth Manning breaking the law and risking a lifetime in jail to make them public.
(And, for what it’s worth, I do think that some things should be classified.)
I also confess that I am happy that there has not been another 9/11 since 9/11, and I wish the FBI had stopped the deranged Tsarnaev brothers before they allegedly killed four innocent people in Boston and maimed a few dozen others. I understand that the authorities will never be able to eliminate terrorism entirely, but I am glad that they’ve limited it as much as they have.
And, lastly, although I don’t relish the thought of having the government intercept and record all of my communications, I want to find out whether it’s actually true that the government is doing this before I freak out about it. Also, because I am not a terrorist, because this country has a well-developed legal system, and because I do not instinctively regard all government employees as evil power-hungry scumbags, I would also like to believe that, even if the government is recording all of my communications, this won’t necessarily wreck my life.
All of which is to say…
I’m not yet ready to pronounce Edward Snowden a “hero.”
I understand that he means well.
And I understand that he may think he’s a hero.
But he hasn’t persuaded me of that yet.
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