It's Time for Edward Snowden to Defend His Actions – In a Courtroom

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 Is Edward Snowden a hero, or a criminal? Is he a champion of human rights, or a traitor to his country? These are complicated questions, but I wonder if we should be asking them at all.

As I write this, Snowden is marooned in the transit zone of a Moscow airport – the victim of a revoked US passport and hampered by his inability to find a new home. When he is either apprehended by authorities or finds asylum in a sympathetic country, I lament the sensation of the chase will overshadow the fundamental issues the monitoring programs by our governments represent. I say “our governments” because this is not solely a US issue. GCHQ in the UK has also played its part, and like its NSA and FBI counterparts, it has done so under the guise of national security.

My fear is that if Snowden is arrested, then the media coverage here at home – and the national conversation – will center on the messenger rather than his message. Military jurisdiction aside, I’m sure WikiLeaker Bradley Manning would agree.

The longer Snowden remains on the run, or insulated, the faster our conversation may turn to an open discussion about the need to balance personal freedom with that of security. It’s this national discussion that former chief military adviser, retired US Navy Adm Mike Mullen, spoke of at a recent event near Washington DC. There are choices to make when it comes to surveillance techniques, and although Mullen made assertions about bringing Snowden to justice, disclosure of Operation PRISM and related programs allows the American public – and indeed the world – to discuss the trade-off game via an open forum.

Even the word ‘privacy’ itself is subject to debate. In Europe it’s considered a fundamental human right. Here in the US, although we like to think of ourselves as the champions of privacy, it’s not one enumerated by any of our constitutional laws. Rather, notions of privacy are penumbras, and remain flexible in the face of changing public and legal opinions. Privacy is a dynamic organism, and not a stationary pillar.

I was unsurprised to learn the US government was tracking communications meta-data on its citizens and foreigners, nor was I particularly disturbed by it. The same could be said for Operation PRISM. I assumed this type of snooping was ongoing, and the only objections I raise revolve around transparency of the process. If only information related to terrorist activity is acted upon, then I’m personally happy for the programs to continue. Oversight by Congress, however, is at best passive, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court empowering this conduct has acted more as a rubber-stamp.

If data provided by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is correct, then the role the FISC plays in permitting surveillance by the US government is far from oversight. Since the court was implemented in 1979, 33,949 requests have been submitted, of which 33,942 warrants were granted. That means in more than 30 years of existence, the court has denied only seven requests, with a rejection rate of 0.03%. It says to me that, given our experience with government overreach throughout history, this track record is exactly what we should be discussing, and not whether Edward Snowden should face trial or be granted asylum. This court was tasked with protecting rights, but it appears – from the data – to be serving only the government’s interests.

Some argue that whistleblowers play a critical role in keeping the public informed about abuses of government power. I would agree with this sentiment, noting that an insider’s access to information is far greater than any reporter could amass. However, we are a nation of laws, and breaking those laws – even for perceived ‘good’ intentions – requires that transgressors avail themselves to the justice system. Writing in On Free Choice of the Will, St. Augustine said that “An unjust law is no law at all”, meaning that secular rules are not immune from violating the laws of nature. Yet they are laws nonetheless, and will remain so until a person or group of people come along to challenge their legitimacy. This is where Snowden can thrust himself into the role of hero, but only insofar as he can move the conversation from that of his own freedom onto the issues he felt strongly enough about to violate his oath.

If your cause is just, and you have broken the law, then the onus is on the community to support your cause. It’s an inexact science, perhaps one that may lead to ‘unjust’ outcomes, but I also believe it’s the type of approach to civil disobedience that endures. Taking flight to avoid legal repercussions, in the end, only hurts that cause and deflects – perhaps irreparably – public attention from the underlying issues. It’s already happened in earnest with the news media, which have largely forgotten about these greater issues to play the ‘where’s Snowden’ game, and in the process, slain any chance he had at achieving a lofty hero status. When this happens, we all lose out, not just one ex-NSA contractor without a country to call home.

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