Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Edward Snowden - Hero or Criminal

     There is a fine line these days between whistle blower and leaker.  Edward Snowden has been tight roping this line ever since he decided to out himself as the individual responsible for the public’s knowledge of the government surveillance program known as PRISM.  Some are revering Snowden as a hero while others are calling for his prosecution for releasing classified documents.  So is Snowden a hero, or a different brand of self-righteous vigilante? 
     The most recent issue of Time Magazine featured a story on modern day leakers of government information.  According to the article, more than 1.4 million Americans have top-secret clearances issued by the government.  This is an astonishing number to many in the public arena because semantically, top-secret should be top-secret.  However, a large number of individuals (including non-government employees such as Snowden) have access to secret government information.  The great burden and responsibility given to these individuals should compel them to maintain the utmost professionalism when going about their daily routines. 
     Time quotes Snowden as saying, “The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.” How does a low-level staffer at a government contracted company get to decide that?  In an interview President Obama gave with Charlie Rose this week, the President stated these programs were authorized by members of congress and the FISA courts.  Now, while the FISA courts conduct their rulings in secret, several members of congress have been made aware of these programs.  So if these programs were authorized by congress, why does Snowden bear the responsibility of letting the public (who are widely misinformed on key issues) decide if the program is right or wrong? 
     Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence states, “What this young man has done, I can say with a fair amount of certainty, is going to cost someone their lives.”  While Snowden’s leak may not directly compromise our National Security, his actions have grave implications for the future.  He has inspired many individuals to question our government’s authority – which is all well and good and, at times, should be questioned – but may have inspired others in similar positions to leak classified information that is detrimental to our National Security.  Snowden decided that this program was unconstitutional and leaked the information to the public.  He leaked classified information because he personally disagreed with it. 
     In the days after 9/11, the U.S. government began frantically hiring those in the tech world to the CIA and other agencies to help prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again.  Snowden did not graduate from high school and was included in the group hired after the attacks.  One positive outcome from his actions may be a reanalysis of how the government conducts its hiring of officials and grants access of secret information.  When Snowden leaked the information this month, he worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a government contracted company.  Maybe now the government will reevaluate how it chooses its government contractors in the wake of this event. 
     Snowden has also inspired the younger generation.  In a Time magazine poll, 53% of Americans believe Snowden should be prosecuted while 28% say he should be “sent on his way.”  These numbers are drastically different for those from ages 18-to-34.  Among this age group, 43% say Snowden should not be prosecuted.  Many have begun to show support for Snowden and his “bold” choice not only for leaking the information but also for outting himself as the source.  Many believe we need more transparency in government and his decision should be protected by the First Amendment.  The Supreme Court has set limits on the First Amendment such as not being able to yell “fire” in a crowded theater.  There are also First Amendment restrictions when uttering “bomb” on an airplane.  These limits especially extend to issues pertaining to National Security.  A prime example is the government’s “Black Budget”.  In U.S. v. Richardson, the Supreme Court ruled that taxpayers do not have a right to information on the “Black Budget” because disclosure of this information would be counter intuitive to its purpose.  Jeremy Hammond, who was recently prosecuted for leaking classified government information stated, “I did this because I believe people have a right to know what governments and corporations are doing behind closed doors.”  There are simply aspects of the government that we, as citizens, should not be “entitled” to know. 
     Under the Bush administration, Republicans fully supported surveillance efforts to aid in the thwarting of terror plots vis a vis the Patriot Act.  Many Republicans believe President Obama has not done his job keeping Americans safe from domestic terror attacks.  Some GOP congressmen and television personalities have noted under President Bush that there were zero terror attacks against Americans (except for the worst attack in American history) and under President Obama there have been up to five.  Republicans, such as Senator Rand Paul, have been outspoken against the new government surveillance programs. 
     The NSA reports up to 50 terror plots thwarted due to these programs.  Tuesday on MSNBC’s Martin Bashir Show, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) issued a rebuttal to this fact contending the government can adequately defend Americans from terrorists without broad and unfettered surveillance programs.  Now, PRISM does not tap or surveil Americans unfettered or randomly despite having access to a plethora of direct information.  Those who are subject to government surveillance are targeted as foreign nationals therefore bypassing the Fourth Amendment.  However, if that target has been involved with an American, that American may be subject to PRISM. 
     Another article on Time’s website begs the question, “Where is the line between principled whistle-blowing and disloyal leaking?”  The article's primary example is a comparison of Snowden with Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg.  The author argues that the chief difference between the two is the Pentagon Papers revealed the government (the White House) lied to congress and the American people about the war in Vietnam whereas Snowden morally disagreed with the PRISM program.  To that point, the author writes that if the PRISM program is in fact legal, (as it has been authorized by FISA court and congress), “Snowden could still look like a ‘conscientious objector’ breaking the law because of his own moral imperatives.” 
     Details are still unfolding and the investigation is still ongoing.  It is hard to make a complete judgment until we know that all the facts have been released.  It is still hard to say how much truth Snowden has in fact disclosed in his interview with The Guardian.  Lawmakers such as Nancy Pelosi, Lindsey Graham, and Dianne Feinstein have all called for Snowden to be prosecuted.  The bottom line is Snowden broke the law by disclosing classified documents because of his moral objection.  Snowden claims he outed himself because he does not want to hide yet he has sought asylum in Hong Kong.  National Security is a funny way for the government to excuse broad based programs such as PRISM which are surely objected to by a wide majority of the American (and even the global) public.  However, I believe Snowden should face the consequences of his actions given the apparent authorization of the program.  We have now entered into the digital age where information is readily available and is a tool for good or evil.  There is a fine line these days between whistle blower and leaker and I believe Edward Snowden has crossed it. 

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