There’s been a good deal of debate this week in the news media over whether this Edward Snowden character, who leaked classified information on government surveillance programs to several major newspapers, is a hero or a traitor to his country. I can’t help but jump into this debate because it’s the kind of thing I find engaging. And if you have read many of my columns you might guess that my answer is going to be a nuanced (and likely long-winded) one.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front -- we should be able to agree that the man is a criminal. He signed a document that said he would keep any classified information he had access to private and he broke that agreement, knowing full well that what he was doing was illegal and knowing what the consequences would be when his actions came to light.
The government has no choice but to press charges against him and I can’t think of a good legal argument to say that he shouldn’t be convicted and imprisoned for what he has admitted to doing.
But the question of whether or not what he did was morally wrong and whether or not the man betrayed his country is a very different and much more complex matter. (Here comes the long-windedness you were warned about earlier.)
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Whatever else you might say about Snowden, you have to admit that he was in a difficult position. He was privy to information about government programs which had the approval of all three branches of government and were therefore perfectly legal. Yet these programs were also being kept secret from the American people and upon learning about them, many of us would agree with Snowden’s opinion, that they are unconstitutional and counter to the principles on which this nation was founded.
What should he have done in that situation? It seems to me his options were very limited. I can think of no legal and effective way he could have protested this. His choices were to either keep his mouth shut or to do what he did, break the law, and (most likely) ruin his life.
What would you have done in his shoes? I think the great majority of us would have kept our mouths shut. Not many of us would throw away our lives and our personal freedom by taking on the U.S. government.
The fact that he has thrown his life and his future into turmoil does not, of course, make Snowden a hero. But labeling him a traitor, as some of our congressional representatives (but not our image-conscious president, interestingly enough) have done, is a hard sell.
I think it’s fair to say that Snowden did betray his government, but I don’t believe he betrayed his country. And I certainly don’t think he betrayed our Constitution.
The Fourth Amendment says that our government does not have the right to invade our personal space unless we are suspected of criminal wrongdoing and that “searches and seizures” have to be pre-approved by a judicial official, based on evidence of that wrongdoing. I believe that means that they have no constitutional authority to collect detailed information on every single American’s phone and Internet activity so they’d have convenient access to it in the event they want to browse through it on some future date looking for evidence of terrorist activity. But that’s exactly what they have been doing, for years. And they’ve been doing it in secret, until now.
How you feel about this case probably comes down to how you feel about the government. I’ll come clean and admit that I am a confirmed Libertarian and I believe our government has too much power, and this is just another example of how it has assumed more authority than the Constitution says it is allowed to have. If you are looking for traitors to the principles our country was founded on, don’t look in Hong Kong or wherever Snowden has fled. Look in Washington D.C. They’re everywhere.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Centerville. Readers can write him at email@example.com or visit his blog at nscsense.blogspot.com.