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Editorial: Leaker has forced an important, overdue national conversation

Two years ago, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a 32-year veteran of Congress, warned that the American people “will be extremely surprised when they learn how the Patriot Act is secretly being interpreted.”

Now, thanks to Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old computer jock who revealed the existence of two secret government programs that collect information about citizens, we know. And, yes, we were surprised to learn that government was vacuuming up the records of every telephone call, who was called, when, from where and for how long, all in the name of national security. Surprised, but not shocked. Trust in government is too shaky for that.

Snowden also outed a National Security Agency program with the spy-thriller name Prism that collects data from email, photos and other information transmitted overseas via the internet. His revelations have been called an act of treason by some and patriotism by others. The truth, if the facts bear out Snowden’s account, are more the latter than the former. He wanted not to profit personally or to harm the United States, but rather to inform the public of what he felt was dangerous and potentially unconstitutional government action.

The two NSA programs are legal. Some in Congress knew about and apparently approved them. Which makes one wonder why James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, lied to Wyden during a hearing last spring when he denied that the NSA collects information on millions of Americans.

What Snowden did was, of course, illegal. He should have taken his concerns to Congress or expressed them first in a legal channel. But his actions were also a service to the nation, which as some members of Congress and President Obama have noted, needs to have a frank discussion about how to balance security and privacy. We can’t have 100 percent of both, the president said. The discussion is overdue. We live in an era where business is conducted and lives lived online, and the technology exists to collect, store and mine vast quantities of personal data.

How much intrusion into citizens’ private lives is warranted in the name of security? Do the intrusions keep us safe? Is the collection of that data “reasonable,” or an unreasonable, unwarranted search under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution? Are we a democratic society, a surveillance society or both? Can both exist simultaneously?

Did the data collection programs need to be secret? We doubt it. The public, polls suggest, is only too willing to ignore Benjamin Franklin’s warning that people who trade liberty for security will get neither. It would approve the spying. And any terrorist with a thimble full of brains expects that phone and internet communications will be monitored.

Should the government have faith in a clandestine intelligence system that can be compromised at any moment by any low-level player with a security clearance? Bradley Manning, the man behind he massive leak of classified federal information to WikiLeaks three years ago, was an Army private. Snowden, though he worked his way up to a $120,000 per year job, started as a security guard at a NSA facility. There are hundreds if not thousands of potential Snowdens in what has become a vast, semi-privatized federal intelligence system.

A government that watches its citizens needs to be watched back. Abuse of power has a long history.

It’s time to talk about where we are – a nation with a Patriot Act that’s open to semi-secret if not secret interpretation, national security letters that forbid citizens to say they are being secretly investigated and personal privacy that seems a distant memory – and where as a nation we want to be.

Legacy Comments22

We can have, and perhaps demand in some sense, such a conversation to an appropriate degree without massively indiscriminate exposure of classified information involiving individuals and procedures that are critically safeguarded in our present day technological society. How much will we admire infantile self righteous actors such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden for their simple and impulsive laying open of such information to so many who will choose to use it to fundamentally harm us as best they can? Shall we cheer their moral superiority?

+I find it odd that Snowden who is so worried about government surveillance and human rights, should run to China for protection, which has zero human rights and internet censorship. Also since the US just took China to task for hacking this seems to give the US a black eye. Wonder what China would pay someone for something like this? Just wondering?

He is in Hong Kong, not PRC. His knowledge is low level. Let's not forget that Bill Clinton gave China missile technology without even blinking. We are our own worst enemy when it comes to losing the intelligence fight, you can blame our own government. The issue is that the FBI, IRS, White House, EPA, Justice Department, etc. are all being used politically and not in the best interest of the We The People.

lets debate this......the promise newly elected Barack Obama made in January 2009 that he would “hold myself as president to a new standard of openness….Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

when George W. Bush was President, Pew Research Center asked Democrats how they felt about the NSA’s surveillance programs. Thirty-seven percent labeled the spying “acceptable,” and 61 percent said they were unacceptable. The reverse is true today, as 64 percent of Democrats believe that Barack Obama’s surveillance programs are acceptable

We have one of two choices "Either moniter traffic to find what sticks out and investigate it or we stop all monitoring and after another 911 or worse event happens wait for the hearings as to "why" no one knew these people were planning that". The US Supreme ruled before that there is nothing wrong with looking at calls and call duration because that is already done for billing. The same applies to internet usage because it is also done for billing. You only look at content if some activity appears to be "off". It started with Homeland Security and 911.

"When Obama or any of his minions speak, do you expect impartial information, an honest appraisal, or objective analysis?"

The Nation conversation needs to focus on the fact that the foreign press has scooped the US liberal main stream media on all of these recent scandals....the US liberal press like this rag are patsies for the democrat machiine

Where is even a trace of relevant commentary here. Blah blah blah liberal blah blah democrat machine. Lest we not forget just what party rammed the Patriot Act down our throats.

Well said. Anyone who claims to have not been aware of what's going on obviously did not pay any attention to the news back when the Patriot Act was passed and when it was renewed. There were many people who questioned what the goverment was going to allowed to do. However our reps in both parties passed it anyway probably without reading it.

For the readers education - The Patriot Act passed the Senate 98-1

The patriot act re autorization passed the house 196 republicans and 54 democrats in favor and 122 democrats and 31 republicans against. The senate voted the extension 30 democrats 41 republicans infavor and 18 democrats and 4 republicans against. Obviously the republican party had quite a say in passing this. So they can't say they were unaware.

England's "Guardian", which broke the news on the NSA programs, is probably their best newspaper--the rest of the formerly good ones have been "Murdoched". The Guardian is a decidedly left wing paper, while Glenn Greenwald, who writes for them, is an American who formerly wrote for Salon, and is a legal expert who has long opposed the over-reaches brought on by our ill-advised war on terror. About those over-reaches: funny, I don't ever recall your posts expressing any reservations about them before.

Unfortunately, no one is talking about "before", we are talking about "now".

And exactly what has changed between 'before' and 'now'? Other than the fact, of course, that a Democrat is in the WH. And members of which party are calling Snowden and Greenwald traitors for their actions?

I don't care about history and if this person did that and that person did this.....that is history. I does not justify this president or his administration to skirt, break or abuse privacy and the law. It is not a defense of the present administration to say...."well 'x' did it in his administration". Two wrongs don't make a right. I do not think that Snowden have the book thrown at him but if the damned press did their job and investigated this in the first place instead of shield this president on every single issue, people like Snowden, out of patriotism, would not have to come forward.

reply to Bruce below....I'm pretty sure we never knew what the details were involving the NSA, and that they have been far expanded under Obama. That would be the difference.

Maybe we should ask our elected congressional delegation. They were, after all, according to Obama, completely briefed on the goings on.

Hmmm...look for the big expose in tomorrows Monitor.

Hillary Clinton, Obama and Ambassador Rice lied to America for weeks about Benghazi....OR......USA spy network is worthless....what do you think is the truth.......... Did you know that Obama sent 10 SWAT agents to arrest the film maker....guess how many men Obama sent to save the US Ambassador and 3 other Americans from being murdered.....ZERO

Obama's USA = Under Surveillance Always

Unfortunately the Patriot Act opened the public gates for monitoring and that is what subsequent administrations inherited. You are a fool ( global comment not personal) if you believe that every choice a President makes is entirely political. Very few, if any one enters the office with the knowledge to handle all aspects of govt. and is dependent on advisers and experienced personnel not political agendas. Snowden is not a hero leaker, he is a traitor pure and simple. The press is just as culpable for making him out to be some sort of hero. However these leaks are not newsworthy in any way shape or form. We were spying on China, stop the presses, we have been spying on them since 1949 and them on us. We have also spied on our allies, again no news. This too has been going on for decades. Google- Jonathan Pollard, who was jailed in 1987 for spying for Israel and the lists go on. So why the sudden media hysteria and shock? Liquidate the leak and let us get back to pretending the world is all soft and cuddly. Funny thing is countries trust each other as much as liberals trust conservatives and vice versa. That is the nature of humans since the dawn of the species

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