Inquirer Editorial: A villain and a hero

Edward Snowden The Guardian
Edward Snowden The Guardian
Posted: June 13, 2013

Conservative commentator Glenn Beck calls Edward Snowden a "hero," while Republican House Speaker John Boehner calls the domestic-espionage whistle-blower a "traitor." Who's right? Maybe both of them.

Snowden is like a stick of Doublemint, which in old TV commercials was described as "two gums in one." It's hard to label him because of the way he chose to make an important point about the constitutionally questionable methods being used to guard America against terrorist attacks.

That point shouldn't get lost in the discussion and expected prosecution of Snowden, who has admitted abusing his security clearance while working for a company contracted to help the government spy on its citizens. He stole and leaked to two newspapers information about surveillance programs that tracked Internet correspondence and telephone calls.

"As I advanced and learned the dangerous truth behind the U.S. policies that seek to develop secret, irresistible powers and concentrate them in the hands of an unaccountable few, human weakness haunted me," Snowden told the Washington Post. He criticized President Obama for not only failing to investigate Bush administration officials, but continuing their domestic spying.

By revealing the names of people whose e-mail and phone calls have been tracked by the National Security Agency, Snowden may have facilitated a court ruling on whether their privacy rights have been violated. Not knowing whose correspondence was monitored because the information was classified, civil liberties groups had lacked the legal standing to pursue a case.

A columnist for the Guardian, the British newspaper that also got classified information from Snowden, dismissed suggestions that the leaks represent a major security breach. "The only thing that has been jeopardized is the reputation and credibility of the people in power who are engaged in this massive spying program and wanted to do it in the dark," said the columnist, Glenn Greenwald.

That may be true, but many Americans apparently don't mind the dark if it helps keep terrorists at bay. A new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll shows 56 percent of Americans think it's OK for the NSA to obtain secret court approval to data-mine the phone records of millions of citizens; 62 percent said it's fine if terrorism investigations intrude on their personal privacy.

Thank goodness polls don't define our rights. The limits of government power are outlined in the Constitution, which says citizens should not be subject to "unreasonable searches and seizures." That means there should be a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing before the government starts snooping.

How to assess reasonable suspicion is the key. Snowden isn't alone in believing that too wide a net is being cast to determine who deserves more scrutiny. But his decision to run after stealing secrets undercuts his point.

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