It is hard to believe that it has been less than a year since Edward Snowden leaked documents that revealed the National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting the communication records of millions of Americans indiscriminately and in bulk.
The groundbreaking revelations, revealed in a series of Pulitzer Prize winning articles by the Guardian and the Washington Post, have led to a continuous and fierce debate over the balance between liberty and security.
In essence, where should the line be drawn in terms of the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy?
How much of our privacy must be sacrificed in order for the government to effectively “protect” us? In the post-9/11 world, where terrorism is perceived as a constant threat and “the enemy” is an elusive, ill-defined and often invisible entity, these questions have no easy answers.
We make trade-offs between our liberty and security every day, perhaps without being conscious of it. What this means is that some of our liberty, or freedom, must be sacrificed in order for us to be safe.
There are simple examples of this, such as being required to wear a seatbelt in a car. This is a practical choice that keeps us safe in case we happen to get into an accident.
It’s true that a seatbelt can be uncomfortable, but sometimes comfort must be sacrificed for the greater good. When we travel via airplane, we have to wait in tedious security lines at the airport.
We are often required to take off our shoes, remove our laptops from our bags and sometimes be patted down, all in order to ensure that we arrive safely at our destinations.
While many might see this as annoying, it is still generally accepted as necessary in order to perpetuate our security.
These above examples might seem minuscule when compared to the mass surveillance program revealed by Snowden, but they are tied to the same set of issues.
The question is whether or not the NSA’s program really helps keep our society safer, or whether it just allows the government to have more control than it should. After all, information is power.
Some have stated that they are okay with the collection of this data, as they “have nothing to hide.” Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is among that crowd.
In an interview, Senator Graham stated: "I don't think you're talking to the terrorists. I know I'm not. So we don't have anything to worry about." Jeremy Carp, Research Associate at the Brennan Center for Justice, makes a valid case against this perspective:
This is an oddly passive response from a nation whose citizens celebrate their robust liberties and reject the surveillance-driven philosophies of authoritarian regimes. Such a response is also an exceedingly narrow and short-sighted understanding of contemporary surveillance and its far-reaching consequences… In a democracy, it is essential that the lion's share of power lay in the hands of the people.
With the rise of massive data storage capabilities and powerful analytic computers, information is increasingly the currency of power. As the government's capabilities to collect and retain vast swaths of information continue to grow, so too does its power.
Therefore, it is apparent that many people are not comfortable with the idea of a secretive mass surveillance program, and feel that the information could potentially be abused if it fell into the wrong hands.
It is also notable that a White House review panel on the NSA surveillance found that it had not thwarted any terrorist attacks. If it’s not keeping us safer, why is it necessary?
Snowden, who worked as a contractor for the NSA, is now a fugitive and has been granted asylum in Russia. At present, he is one of the most controversial figures in the world.
Obviously, he is a very polarizing figure. Shortly after the information he leaked was made public, the US Department of Justice charged him with espionage, and it is unlikely that he will be returning home anytime soon.
It is evident that Snowden broke the law, but it is difficult to judge him for this given he felt deeply that the American people had a right to know about the government’s activities.
Accordingly, Daniel Ellsberg, the individual responsible for the release of the famous Pentagon Papers, argues that “Snowden did what he did because he recognized the NSA's surveillance programs for what they are: dangerous, unconstitutional activity.
This wholesale invasion of Americans' and foreign citizens' privacy does not contribute to our security; it puts in danger the very liberties we're trying to protect.”
Some have also criticized Snowden for fleeing to Russia, given the troubled relations between the US and Russian governments. Yet, as Richard Cohen puts it:
Snowden’s residency in Russia has been forced upon him — he had nowhere else to go. Those people who insist he should come home and go to jail lack a healthy regard for the rigors of imprisonment… He broke the law, this is true… I suppose Snowden needs to be punished but not as a traitor. He may have been technically disloyal to America but not, after some reflection, to American values.
On April 17, Snowden made his first public appearance with President Vladimir Putin, the leader of the country in which he is currently in exile.
Putin greatly angered the US government when he refused to send Snowden back to the US to face espionage charges, so this interaction was quite noteworthy. During a televised news conference, Snowden questioned Putin about Russia’s surveillance programs via a pre-recorded video.
Snowden essentially asked Putin whether or not Russia was currently collecting information on its own citizens in a manner similar to the US.
Putin, who is also a very controversial figure at present, given the situation in Ukraine, was a KGB agent for 16 years prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Accordingly, he seemed somewhat amused by the situation, which is why he began his reply to Snowden with: "You are an ex-agent. I used to have ties to intelligence. So we will speak to each other in the language of professionals."
The Russian leader went on to say that the Russian authorities need consent from a court to conduct such surveillance on a specific individual "and for this reason there is no (surveillance) of a mass character here and cannot be in accordance with the law."
Putin claimed that he was thankful this was the case, and hoped that it would not change in the future. He also claimed that Russia did not have the funds or technology to conduct that kind of surveillance, and added, “The main thing is that our intelligence services are under the strict control of the state and society."
Snowden arguably provided Putin with an ideal opportunity to claim that Russia does not intrude in the lives of its citizens in the same way that the US does.
In essence, some might say that Snowden’s question allowed Putin to portray Russia as a more lawful and just country than the US. Consequently, Snowden has been criticized for his actions.
David Frum argues that Snowden’s appearance on the show may have disappointed even his admirers, characterizing the event as a Russian “propaganda ritual.”
"Snowden's question was deeply disingenuous and I can only assume this is part of his singing for his supper, or at least his sanctuary… It gave Putin the chance to give an equally disingenuous reply that dramatically misrepresents the massive interception and surveillance capacities available to the Russian state and the lack of meaningful checks and balances on them."
Russian experts quickly dismissed Putin’s comments, claiming, “Russia even has its own version of PRISM, the clandestine mass electronic surveillance program that Snowden uncovered. It's called SORM, and has been around since 1995. During Putin's 14 years in Russian leadership, the scope of SORM has been expanded numerous times.”
Subsequently, Edward Snowden has defended his decision to question Putin, and issued a heartfelt response to the criticism lobbed against him:
I was surprised that people who witnessed me risk my life to expose the surveillance practices of my own country could not believe that I might also criticize the surveillance policies of Russia, a country to which I have sworn no allegiance, without ulterior motive.
I regret that my question could be misinterpreted, and that it enabled many to ignore the substance of the question – and Putin's evasive response – in order to speculate, wildly and incorrectly, about my motives for asking it.
Regardless of Snowden’s true motives, it is apparent that he is an individual in a very difficult situation. Ergo, it is difficult and perhaps irrelevant to dwell on his character, as he is now subject to forces far beyond his control.
It is not surprising whatsoever that the Russian government is attempting to capitalize on his presence.
So, is Snowden a hero or a villain? The answer to this question largely depends on where one is sitting. If you are an employee of the NSA or CIA, for example, Snowden has now made your job very difficult, and it might be easy to label him a traitor.
Yet, if you are a common American citizen, you might argue that his actions were selfless and brave. After all, the man has now been exiled from his country, accused of espionage, and will never enjoy a normal life – and he is only 30.
Hence, a better question to ask might be: “What did Snowden have to gain from this?” At present, there aren’t any clear answers to this.
As Richard Cohen notes, “Snowden seems to have sold out to no one. In fact, a knowledgeable source says that Snowden has not even sold his life story and has rebuffed offers of cash for interviews. Maybe his most un-American act is passing up a chance at easy money. Someone ought to look into this.”
Thus, perhaps Snowden is neither hero nor villain, but simply an individual who believes fervently in transparency and democracy.
Whether or not you admire the man, it is difficult to make the case that we are not better off as a result of his actions. Snowden uncovered the extremely dubious activities of those we have trusted to protect us, and as a consequence, we are in a decidedly better position to discuss the role the government should play in our lives.
A healthy democracy requires an informed and engaged citizenry. In the words of Noam Chomsky, Snowden “was doing what every citizen ought to do. He was telling Americans what the government is doing."
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