Edward Snowden: patriot or traitor?

Since Edward Snowden released thousands of secret NSA documents detailing United States involvement in both domestic and foreign surveillanceto certain journalists, the question of whether he is a traitor, a patriot or a simple idealist has gone without strong consensus.  The information he provided resurfaced many old debates, some specific to the NSA, regarding the balance of security and freedom.  Though still legally contended, I believe that Edward Snowden was justified in leaking documents concerning U.S. surveillance of its citizens.  The United States has a responsibility to keep its citizens secure but cannot justify breaching their personal security in the process without strong justification.

For the public release of secret documents to be justified, three characteristics must have all been present.  First, the actions of the U.S. government must have been jeopardizing the safety and or liberty of U.S. citizens.  Harm implies a level of physical or moral trespass that is clearly contrary to which the standards the United States holds itself.  Second, there must have been reasonable expectation that reports would have been ignored or that the reports had been presented and dismissed.  In Snowden’s case he either must have informed a superior officer of his concerns or believed that his efforts would have been ignored.  Third, the program must have been a short-term response to a threat as opposed to an overarching policy.  This distinguishes a legitimate reaction designed to protect citizens from an imminent threat from a policy designed to span wartime.

Concerning the first characteristic, I will maintain that the collection of metadata and content by the United States government was directly harming the liberty of U.S. citizens.  Edward Snowden clearly stated that he had the clearance to access the personal information of any U.S. citizen at both a metadata and content level.  Despite claims to the contrary by the NSA and other government sources, the precedent of NSA overstepping and the building of a massive facility in Bluffdale, Utah strongly suggest content collection and storage.  It is clearly stated in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Consitution that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”  Utilizing presidential powers in times of war to protect the United States must be limited by reasonable expectations of the citizenry.  While the argument that the need for warrants can be suspended or applied broadly in wartime does have practical applications, specifically in dealing with this case, there is still a fundamental need for probable cause.  By taking away the need for individualized warrants alongside probable cause in application to its citizens the United States is in effect labeling each citizen a potential enemy.  The distinction is immutable regardless of who many one citizen may be communicating with in the same way that domestic justice services cannot randomly search homes on the grounds that criminal activity is potentially occurring in every home.  This methodology and rationalization inevitably leads to the same kind of systemic criminalization that was present when the United States created internment camps for Japanese U.S. citizens during World War II.  Though the process may eventually catch some criminals, no security is worth sacrificing essential liberties.

Regarding the second characteristic, there is strong evidence that reports were submitted by Edward Snowden and were subsequently ignored.  The NSA stated that in examining their records there was only one instance in which Snowden commented on the ethical implications of the program, and in the email his doubts were only vaguely implied.  Snowden has stated clearly that he voiced his objections to the breadth of the program and its capabilities concerning the targeting of U.S. citizens.

“I had reported these clearly problematic programs to more than ten distinct officials, none of whom took any action to address them,” said Edward Snowden to the Washington Post.

Subsequently going to the media was not unreasonable considering the change taken into effect under congressional hearings following the first information releases provided by whistleblower William Binney.  Regardless of claims to the contrary, precedents of NSA’s legal intimidation and stifling of criticism give credibility to Snowden’s statements.

“As an employee of a private company rather than a direct employee of the US government, I was not protected by US whistleblower laws, and I would not have been protected from retaliation and legal sanction,” said Snowden.

Having known the experiences of his predecessor, Snowden had no recourse left.

Lastly, the programs Snowden revealed are in no way short-term responses to an immediate threat but are overarching policy decisions with heavy implications for the future of personal digital security.  As the aforementioned reference indicated, the building of a massive facility such as the one in Utah implies the need for yottabytes upon yottabytes of storage capacity that simply would not be needed for simple metadata collection and or storage.  A facility of this size signifies not only the presence of content-based strategy but also the desire to continue these programs for an extended period of time.  Thus, either the United States expects to be in a perpetual state of war that would justify the need for an extended period of collection, or intelligence agencies intend to enact a policy of perpetual collection regardless of wartime status.  All rationale for these types of programs are based on the assumption that they are effective in protecting U.S. citizens during times of war.

Two key arguments contest this.  First, there has been no data suggesting any such program has been vital to the intercession of a terrorist plot.  Many simply state that any information supporting the capacity of these programs is confidential and therefore cannot be shared.  In response, the second argument is that these programs did nothing to stop the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013.  If these programs were so effective, then it would be reasonable to believe that data linking the two to the terrorists overseas that the FBI believed trained them for the attack would have made it possible for the United States to stop the attack from occurring.  Between lack of evidence showing success and the clear intent to continue operational data collection within the United States, one can reasonably conclude that these are not effective wartime policies.

The strongest argument showing the potential guilt of Edward Snowden is his fleeing for foreign refuge.  Many, including the United States government, claim that if Snowden is truly innocent then he will return home and face the charges levied against him.  This however speaks more strongly to the past handling of these situations by the NSA than it does to Snowden’s intentions.  Past whistleblowers have described threats involving bankruptcy, targeting by agencies themselves and intense personal scrutiny.  By definition Snowden neither betrayed his country nor committed espionage.  He did not release the documents to a foreign enemy or with the intention of harming U.S. citizens, as the definitions of espionage or treason respectively would apply.  Disillusionment itself is neither a punishable crime nor a legitimate argument against the actions of Edward Snowden.  Rather it portrays the gravity of the information to which he found himself privy as he found it necessary to flee his country.

The actions of Edward Snowden are congruent with the standards set forth to justify leaking confidential NSA documents in wartime.  He saw clear harm coming to the personal liberties of U.S. citizens with no legitimate safeguards, presented legal and moral criticisms to the implications of NSA collection strategies and understood the programs as ineffective and without limitation to wartime status.  All of these understandings support the criterion that Edward Snowden was justified in leaking documents concerning United States surveillance of its citizens.  The need for security can under no circumstance come at the sacrifice of personal liberty for all citizens.

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