By Bill Weiss
Let me begin by saying: I don’t know whether Edward Snowden is a patriot or a traitor, and neither do you.
The only thing we know for certain is that Edward Snowden leaked documents to a journalist, some of which were “classified”; that he obtained those documents while employed by Booz Allen Hamilton, a private tech consulting firm with headquarters in Fairfax County, Va., and contracted by the National Security Agency (NSA); that he fled the country; and that the government has issued a global warrant for his arrest and extradition.
What we don’t know (for a fact) is whether the leaked documents actually pose a threat to national security. All we know is that our government says national security has been breached.
However, thanks to Mr. Snowden, we now know something else: Our government is using private corporations like Booz Allen and Verizon Wireless to gather and supply to our government information regarding our communications with each other. This is, of course, all done with accordance with the ironically-named USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, which was passed in the aftermath of 9/11 and recently extended as the PATRIOT Sunsets Extension Act of 2011 by the current administration.
No one is arguing that in this age of terrorist threats that extraordinary steps are not required to combat these often invisible adversaries, but to what extent are we willing to trade freedom for security? Benjamin Franklin once said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
While we’re on this matter of private corporations gleaning information for the NSA, what’s to stop these private enterprises from using your info for demographic research? But that’s another story.
Many argue that Mr. Snowden “could have reported his concerns to superiors.” Consider that for a moment. What do you really believe would have happened had he brought his discoveries to the attention of either his employer or any government official? Here’s another thing that we now know, thanks to Mr. Snowden, that we didn’t know before: Under the PATRIOT Act, any revelation of so-called classified information can be considered an act of treason. Not even members of Congress who serve on the various national security committees are allowed to discuss between themselves matters deemed sensitive by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA). Some argue that if the FISA court rules a thing to be “legal,” such as accessing and stockpiling our e-mails and phone records for future use, then it’s the right thing to do. But legal doesn’t mean constitutional.
Our Bill of Rights, Amendment Four, reads as follows: “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.”
Obviously, neither e-mail nor cell phones were around when the Bill of Rights was penned; however, Amendment Four clearly guarantees our right to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,” e-mail and telephone conversations being today’s version of our “papers and effects.”
With our government currently holding scores of individuals who have long ago been proven to be neither enemy combatants nor terrorists indefinitely without charges or trial, and with Bradley Manning having been held for more than a year without charges or trial, can there be much doubt that had Snowden kept this in private channels that he, too, might have been indefinitely incarcerated without charge or trial?
So, here’s another thing that we now know: When the FISA court rules that something is legal, and it falls under the PATRIOT Act, the classified nature of those rulings makes it impossible to bring a Supreme Court challenge because no one is supposed to even know about them.
Something we already knew: Our government keeps secrets from us.
Something we didn’t know: We are not allowed to know about and challenge anything our government does under the PATRIOT Act.
Whether Mr. Snowden is a patriot or a traitor is for history to decide. That he handled this situation poorly is an understatement. That he may be a fame-seeker is quite likely. What is certain is that were it not for his actions, we would not know the extent to which our government has sidestepped constitutionality in favor of a quasi-secret court that may be merely a judicial rubber stamp for anything the NSA wants made legal.
How much essential liberty are you willing to give up for a little security? And if you’re giving it up, shouldn’t you have the right to know? Thanks to Mr. Snowden, we can now have that discussion.
Bill Weiss is a resident of Kirkland, Ill.
From the July 17-23, 2013, issue