The NSA and Edward Snowden: Patriot or Traitor?

The following two-part series from PBS Frontline is worth watching as preface to this blog post, for education as to the extensive mesures the National Security Agency has taken to gather intelligence on its own citizens and the history of how we arrived at where we are today:

It can be argued that intelligence has always been vital to the security of our nation, or of any nation. And we’ve always had covert operatives gathering intelligence, beginning with the Culper Spy Ring of 1778 (tangential note: anybody else a fan of the AMC TV series ‘Turn’?). I’m not necessarily opposed to the core responsibilities of the CIA or the NSA, for that matter, which had its start in World War II. The role of such agencies in military history is something I’m quite fascinated by. The history of espionage is a dirty and sordid business but there are also moments of moral courage and heroism. I have a great deal of respect for those in both organizations, unrecognized and having forfeited public recognition and honor, who gave their lives in defense of this country against its enemies.

But there is also the reporting of Frontline (“A Nation of Secrets”), and NBC’s Brian Williams’ interview with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which — if accurate — is very troubling.

He comes across as somebody who respects the business of intelligence, the validity of the profession — but likewise recognizes that
the agencies he has worked for have vastly overstepped its bounds. In Snowden’s own words:

“The definition of a security state is any nation that prioritizes security over all other considerations … I don’t believe the United States is or ever should be a security state.”

And as to what he is concerned about, in detail (taken from another, earlier interview with German television network ARD):

“Every time you pick up the phone, dial a number, write an email, make a purchase, travel on the bus carrying a cell phone, swipe a card somewhere, you leave a trace. And, the government has decided that it’s a good idea to collect it all. Everything. Even if you’ve never been suspected of any crime. Traditionally the government would identify a suspect, they would go to a judge, they would say we suspect he’s committed this crime, they would get a warrant and then they would be able to use the totality of their powers in pursuit of the investigation. Nowadays what we see is they want to apply the totality of their powers in advance, prior to an investigation.”

Something is seriously amiss when the nation’s most powerful intelligence agency is going well beyond the law, intercepting and data-mining our email correspondence and phone calls of American citizens and treating us as suspect. Trouble enough to have Facebook and Google invading your privacy for the benefit of advertising without the prying eyes of Big Brother looking over their shoulder.

And to suggest that Obama is going to curb the power of such agencies — he has waffled so many times on this matter of intelligence-gathering that whatever he currently promises I have to take with a heavy dose of salt.

* * *

Responding to Snowden’s first television interview (with a U.S. network), Secretary of State John Kerry remarked: “Edward Snowden is a coward … He is a traitor. And he has betrayed his country. And if he wants to come home tomorrow to face the music, he can do so.”

And some closing thoughts from Snowden himself, excerpted from the interview with Brian Williams:

“I think it’s really disingenuous for — for the government to invoke — and sort of scandalize our memories, to sort of exploit the — the national trauma that we all suffered together and worked so hard to come through to justify programs that have never been shown to keep us safe, but cost us liberties and freedoms that we don’t need to give up and our Constitution says we should not give up.”

[…]

“I think patriot is a word that’s — that’s thrown around so much that it can be devalued nowadays. But being a patriot doesn’t mean prioritizing service to government above all else. Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your Constitution, knowing when to protect your countrymen from the — the violations of an — and encroachments of adversaries. And those adversaries don’t have to be foreign countries. They can be bad policies. They can be officials who, you know, need a little bit more accountability. They can be mistakes of government and — and simple overreach and — and things that — that should never have been tried, or — or that went wrong.”

Are those the words of somebody who loves his country or somebody who is sickened by what he’s witnessing? Judged solely on the basis of the interview, it seems to me this is a man compelled to do what he did on the basis of his conscience.

The irony, to me at least, is to hear John Kerry — “WInter Soldier” gone rogue in the 1960’s, who spoke out against what he perceived as atrocities committed by troops in Vietnam — denounce Snowden as a traitor.

Related Links and Reading

  • Readings & Links: NSA Secrets Frontline (PBS). In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the NSA launched what would become known as “the program” — a massive domestic surveillance operation designed to prevent terrorist attacks by collecting the communications of millions of Americans. “The program” was once among the nation’s most closely guarded secrets, but leaks by insiders like former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have since exposed the operation to the world. Here are some highlights of those leaks, as well as a series of government reports on the NSA programs.
  • Revealed: how US and UK spy agencies defeat internet privacy and security. James Ball, Julian Borger and Glenn Greenwald. The Guardian 09/05/13.
  • Obama on Mass Government Surveillance, Then and Now PBS Frontline. 05/13/14.
  • A history of the NSA (pictorial). Washington Post
  • The Sickening Snowden Backlash, by Kirsten Powers. The Daily Beast 06/14/13. “It’s appalling to hear the Washington bureaucrats and their media allies trash Edward Snowden as a traitor, when it’s our leaders and the NSA who have betrayed us.”
  • Noonan: Privacy Isn’t All We’re Losing, by Peggy Noonan. Wall Street Journal 06/14/13:

    If—again, if—what Mr. Snowden says is substantially true, the surveillance state will in time encourage an air of subtle oppression, and encourage too a sense of paranoia that may in time—not next week, but in time, as the years unfold—loosen and disrupt the ties the people of America feel to our country.

Further Reading

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