Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Edward Snowden: Hero or Traitor or Just a Well-meaning Guy Who Acted Rashly?

The debate about whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a villain has never been resolved, just as it never was re Julian Assange. Some see Snowden as an out and out traitor, others as a knight in shining armor. Since he’s a real live human being, it’s unlikely that he’s either.  

He broke some US laws and ran for cover. That makes him an outlaw. He did it deliberately, so he knew what the consequences would be; he knew he’d have to leave the US and probably live in a foreign country. That makes him courageous. He knew he’d probably only have the option of a foreign country with arguably much worse human rights records than the US because those were the only countries that might grant him asylum. 

Right now he’s living in a country that sent two young women to a labor camp in Siberia or speaking out against the government. He hasn’t said a word about that atrocity or their human rights, or Vladimir Putin’s propensity to jail anybody he wants to. That makes Snowden a bit of a hypocrite.  

He exposed real time, arguably unnecessary NSA encroachments on privacy, all in the name of the war on terrorism. The war on Iraq was in the name of terrorism. That pushes the needle towards Snowden being a modern day hero. Some good has resulted from his actions. President Obama appointed a panel to investigate the agency’s alleged infractions and the panel has called for an overhaul of the NSA modus operandi. More points for Snowden the hero.  Even the Editorial Board of the New York Times and The Guardian Editorial have gotten involved. Both argued that Snowden has done more good than harm and should be pardoned by the US President or at least treated leniently.  

The NYT said “The revelations have already prompted two federal judges to accuse the NSA of violating the Constitution”. They name one, but not the other and I can’t find evidence of who it is. The one they do name, Judge Richard J. Leon in Washington didn’t actually accuse the NSA of violating the Constitution. 

In a preliminary hearing of Klayman I and II (see NYT article for the PDF of the case) against Obama et al, Judge Leon granted a motion for a Preliminary Injunction for Klayman I but denied the same motion for Klayman II, saying “the Court concludes that plaintiffs have the standing to challenge the Constitutionality of the Governments bulk collection and querying of phone record metadata …” The judge then stayed the order pending appeal “in view of the significant national security interests at stake in this case and the novelty of the constitutional issues.” Which is rather different to saying the NSA violated the constitution. The judge was clearly unhappy about the NSA’s activities, though. The NYT got that right. 

By the way, ‘et al’ refers to the NSA, The Department of Justice, Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., General Keith B Alexander, Director General of the NSA, and US District Judge Roger Vinson, Verizon Communications and it’s chief executive officer - and Facebook, Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, YouTube, AOL, PalTalk, Skype, Sprint, AT&T and Apple. None of which is mentioned in the NYT Editorial. 

In late December Judge William H. Pauley in New York ruled in another case that the NSA acted within the bounds of the Constitution. Okay, so no agreement amongst the wise men of the land. Not a whole lot of unbiased journalism on the subject.

As for the problems Snowden's revelations have caused for the way the US deals with terrorism, nobody can say, because that’s classified – which is arguably understandable. So there may be a whole bundle of points for Snowden the traitor that none of us know about. We might never know. Or we could find out empirically. There might be another huge terror attack that's a direct result of exposing how the NSA’s surveillance works. It could happen soon, it could happen years from now. 
I don’t know if that's a reasonable justification for the NSA's activities. I guess if I’m the target of terrorism one day and I could prove the attack could have been prevented if Edward Snowden had never played hero, I’d say it was a great justification.  

Some people think they’d rather not put that one to the test; they’d just prefer that the NSA has what it needs to do its job. Maybe that's little simplistic, over-trusting. But it's not necessarily unwise. We can’t know, and that’s the part that leaves me wishing that Snowden had thought this through a little more.  

Then there’s the fact that privacy doesn’t have the same value today as it had even fifty years ago, let alone when the Fourth Amendment was cast in stone. We give our rights to privacy away all the time, to Google, Yahoo! Facebook, Apple et al. We enable apps that ask us to sign away our rights to stop them from using our private information and even our friend’s private information. We don’t feel as if we’re connected to the human race unless we do it. So I don’t really get the outrage at a government department that spies on everybody because it’s looking for terrorists and doesn’t know how else to find them. What’s Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, YouTube, Facebook, Apple et al’s excuse? We want to make life better for you? 

And the difference is? Personally I'd prefer to be spied on by an organization that at least is prompted by the desire to protect me than by ones that just want to make a buck out of me. Well, Edward Snowden didn't see it that way, and nor does half the world. Should he get leniency? I think so. I don't see the point in destroying his life, because whatever he is, he's clearly not an out and out villain and he's not responsible for the fact that he had so much unsupervised power and he wasn't adequately vetted.