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.