I’m going to come right out and say it: Edward Snowden is a criminal. Now, some may argue, he’s concerned about America and the government’s violation of our privacy, so he’s a hero, standing up for the average American who’s been violated.
But Snowden, himself, has stated there were political reasons for his actions: he was angry. Angry at Barack Obama because the president didn’t keep his campaign promises to run a more transparent government. This admission aside, evidence of his true motives consists of his assertions that the US has attempted to infiltrate China’s computer networks (returning the favor, though China–despite proof to the contrary–denies hacking US servers). And then, a couple of days ago, Snowden asserted that the US has spied on its European allies.
Maybe it’s me, but how do such revelations further Snowden’s goal of “exposing” the NSA’s privacy violations of US citizens? If that is, in fact, his goal.
As Snowden spends his days in limbo—looking for some country to grant him asylum, he has found a fellow criminal bedfellow providing financial aid and legal assistance: Julian Assange. Assange, the man behind Wikileaks, did irreparable damage to US national security by leaking confidential cables and other diplomatic documents that were stolen by Army Pfc Bradley Manning. I’ve written in my novels about serial killers who work in tandem and admire one another’s work. Looks like Assange and Snowden are likewise two peas in the criminal pod.
Some can argue that serial killers are violent offenders, and Assange and Snowden committed no acts of violence; they’ve caused no deaths. But let’s examine that assumption for a moment. The NSA Director stated that their surveillance program has helped prevent fifty terrorist attacks on US soil. Fifty. If only ten of those attacks had succeeded, how many people would’ve been killed? If exposure of the NSA program causes a rethink and reboot—or cessation—of a successful program that’s protected American citizens, and Snowden is the reason for this, I would argue that he alone is directly responsible for any consequences, and deaths, that arise from his actions.
But let’s look at the surveillance program itself. Does Snowden have a point? Was our privacy violated? Putting Snowden’s anger—his attempt at political revenge—aside, is there a problem with what the NSA has been doing? There was initially some confusion, on the part of senators and congresspersons, the media, bloggers, and foreign governments, as to what data has been collected.
A worthwhile read is The Wall Street Journal’s article, US Collects Vast Data Trove, from which the following quotes are taken:
“…every time the majority of Americans makes a call, NSA gets a record of the location, the number called, the time of the call and the length of the conversation…. NSA has established similar relationships with credit-card companies, three former officials said.” But, “It couldn’t be determined if any of the Internet or credit-card arrangements are ongoing, as are the phone company efforts, or one-shot collection efforts.”
The president, as well, has said that the government is not listening in on our phone conversations and not reading our email. So what exactly does this data collection mean to the average citizen? It doesn’t appear to mean as much as one would think:
“the data collection effort doesn’t entail monitoring the content of emails or what is said in phone calls…. Investigators gain access to so-called metadata, telling them who is communicating, through what medium, when, and where they are located.”
Further, the Obama administration has also stated that the surveillance efforts are a vital tool in the protection of America against terrorists: Former Pentagon chief of staff Jeremy Bash explained,
“The database allows investigators to ‘map’ individuals connected with that information…We are trying to find a needle in a haystack, and this [database] is the haystack.”
The administration maintains, apparently against popular impression, that there are checks on the government’s authority. In addition to the “secret” FISA court (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) that reviews requests for such data, the data collection program comes under periodic congressional review.
According to the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper,
“the phone data surveillance program…is governed by a ‘robust legal regime.’ Under the court order, the data can only ‘be queried when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization.’ When the data is searched, all information acquired is ‘subject to strict restrictions on handling’ overseen by the Justice Department and the surveillance court, and the program is reviewed roughly every 90 days.”
One problem with Snowden’s (at best idealistic and at worst vengeful) actions is that he had effective means at his disposal to report his concerns to the government oversight panels that were specifically set up to monitor and review the NSA’s surveillance program. He chose, instead, to go the sexier route—where he would inevitably become the focus of international attention—and (for some) a sympathetic media darling.
Another problem is that he was one worker who obtained knowledge of one part of a vast intelligence network (though calling the United States’ intelligence network “vast” is a monumental understatement). Yet Snowden has taken this comparative morsel of information and extrapolated it into believing he knows how the data is used as part of the larger picture of homeland security. He has taken his crumbs and tried to push them into a pile and claim that it represents a dozen pies. That’s dangerous for all of us who rely on law enforcement’s efforts to keep us safe because we can’t cut the legs out from our police and still ask them to still keep us safe.
If the NSA was forced to cease and desist, and Americans were suddenly the victim of, say, suicide bombings and had to pick pieces of flesh and vital organs off the streets of New York City like Israelis have had to do in Jerusalem, very few civil libertarians would be reasonably claiming that Edward Snowden is a hero or that his actions were admirable. Or wise. Or necessary. Conventional bombs are bad enough, but the numbers of victims get scary if we’re talking dirty bombs—which, given how far Iran has progressed toward securing nuclear capability, is possible given its terrorist proxies at work at home and in the US.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, in this worthwhile read from The New York Times, said of Snowden’s actions, “I think it’s an act of treason.” This is significant for two reasons: first, she’s chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and thus has detailed knowledge of the NSA’s efforts and successes, as well as the challenges the country faces in combating terror attacks; second, she’s a staunch Democrat and die-hard liberal. She went on to say:
“What do you think would happen if Najibullah Zazi was successful?” she asked, referring to the man who pleaded guilty to plotting to bomb the New York City subway. Intelligence officials have said N.S.A. e-mail surveillance helped them catch Mr. Zazi. “There would be unbridled criticism,” she said. “Didn’t we learn anything? Can’t we protect our homeland? What good is intelligence if we can’t stop this?”
Another, overlooked, aspect of the NSA’s data collection efforts is that we are perfectly fine with such “intrusions” of our privacy if it’s not the government doing it. To wit: for years I told friends and relatives that, through its search service, Google owned more data about US citizens than the government did. Nowadays, we’re no longer just talking about Google. Facebook and other social networks of all kinds like LinkedIn, Goodreads, Reddit have amassed their own vast troves of personally identifiable data on us; the list of providers compiling our information expands monthly and their stockpiles grow by terabytes on a regular basis. This says nothing of a company like Amazon, where we search, shop, and buy products—and then comment on them. All our transactions are compiled and stored on their servers for the foreseeable future.
These companies collect information on our shopping habits and web surfing behavior; the personal comments we make to and about family members and friends; anti-government sentiments that we share with others, and so on. This data is compiled and sometimes sold to other companies targeting you for specific products. There have been times when I’m looking up something on my phone and when I get back to my office, there’ll be an ad for that item when I open my PC’s web browser. Creepy? Yeah. But no one complains. Some say it provides a valuable service. Maybe, but that’s not really the point, is it?
Here’s a news break: at least one email provider “reads” the email traffic of its customers (as well as those people who emailed these customers) to build a database of interest on each of them. This information is then aggregated and compiled with their web search habits. Isn’t this more intrusive than the government collecting metadata on how long a phone call lasted and which number was dialed? Yet again, aside from some complaining years ago from civil libertarians when the email scanning practice was started, there has been near silence about it in the US.
So is Snowden is a hero or a traitor? Heroes don’t put average citizens in danger; they take the lead in protecting them from those who would plot and do harm. Our first responders are heroes. I believe the difference is obvious.
Edward Snowden got his fifteen minutes of fame. He got his revenge. Now it’s time for him to get what he deserves: justice for his criminal acts.