Snowden: Traitor Or Patriotic Whistleblower?

Edward Snowden exposed the NSA’s program of massive monitoring of American citizens’ electronic communications. Unless you’ve been living in a cave in Tora Bora, you already knew this. His actions, and his subsequent efforts to find a country to protect him from prosecution in this country, have been getting a lot of ink and air time in the news, as well as snowdenhaving effects on our international relations, most recently being credited with Obama’s cancellation of his scheduled summit with Putin.

Opinions on Snowden’s actions seem to fall pretty decisively into one of two camps:

Opinion 1:  Snowden’s a criminal at the least, and very possibly a traitor. He revealed national intelligence secrets, in clear violation of the law and his oath to maintain secrecy. His actions possibly aided our enemies, fundamentalist terrorists. The monitoring he revealed is all perfectly legal, as authorized and defined by the Patriot Act.

Opinion 2:  The NSA monitoring program is a gross violation of Americans’ right of privacy, and Snowden was right in revealing the extent of the monitoring, even though he broke the law to do so. That is the very essence of being a whistleblower. Others in position of authority – particularly knowledgeable elected officials – should have done so long ago. The American people have a right to know if their government – which works for them – is actively spying on them.

I’m firmly in the camp of those who hold Opinion 2, and I’ll tell you why.

First of all, there’s absolutely no evidence of which I’m aware that shows this program to have done anything at all to fight terrorism. On the one hand, we’re told that such indiscriminate “monitoring” is a powerful tool to fight terrorism, while at the same time we shouldn’t worry because there’s so much data being acquired that our own individual privacy is not at risk because there’s simply too much garbage to wade through by the NSA.

Well… which is it? Is there “too much data”, or is it a powerful tool? It sure can’t be both. Either the data is useable, or it’s not. If it’s not, then there’s no valid reason for the program to continue. If the data is useable, then what’s to prevent the government from using it against law-abiding citizens on the merest of whims, any time they feel like it?

Supporters of the program point to the requirement that FISA courts have to approve warrants, but in my earlier essay I already tore that particular rationalization to shreds. It’s laughably meaningless, as the FISA courts function in complete secrecy. A secret court to approve secret warrants to conduct a secret surveillance of private individuals. Why do I not find that reassuring?

Terrorists aren’t stupid. Think about it. In this day and age, even the low-IQ drug dealer on the corner knows to use “burner phones” – one-time-use disposable cell phones – for their communications. Are we supposed to believe that terrorists are dumber than some punk standing on a ghetto corner? That one doesn’t even pass the giggle test.

If I were a terrorist, I’d use my cell phone to talk up a whole bunch of fictitious attacks I was planning… say, on American embassies in a bunch of Middle Eastern countries. I’ll bet I could get the American government to react to that. Maybe they’d close down a bunch of those embassies for a while… maybe even 19 of them. Then, when nothing happened, they’d sure look foolish, wouldn’t they?

Oh, hey… didn’t we just close down a bunch of…

Never mind…

In all these years of having this kind of surveillance program in place, why have we never heard of any examples of how it foiled some terrorist plots? I know, I know… because it would “reveal operational details…”.

Uh huh…

I’ve been highly skeptical of the Patriot Act from its first proposal years ago. Even the name is bothersome, as if it’s somehow “unpatriotic” to be concerned about its potential for abuse and violation of fundamental rights of American citizens.

There’s another aspect to the Snowden affair to consider, too. Granted, he violated the law by revealing those secrets. But if a law is unconstitutional, and/or exceeds its authority or violates citizens’ rights on a wholesale scale, is there an obligation to make that known and oppose it?

NurembergIn the post-World War 2 trials of the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, the principle was firmly established that hiding behind the law, or in their case “orders”, didn’t relieve individuals from their responsibility to do what’s actually right.

In this case the right thing to do would have been to have a public debate on such a massive and intrusive program, and get it all on the record. But that never happened… UNTIL Snowden blew the whistle.

I’d like to think that I’d have the guts to do the same thing if I were in his place.

© Brian Baker 2013

We Don’t Have “Star Chamber” Courts In This Country… Except We Do

“star–cham·ber adjective \ˈstär-ˈchām-bər\ : characterized by secrecy and often being irresponsibly arbitrary and oppressive.”

The original Star Chamber was an English court that operated from the 14th into the 17th Centuries, until 1641. Its original goal was to assure that even the privileged met justice in a fair manner. It operated in secret, didn’t require indictments, allowed no witnesses, and all “evidence” was presented in writing. It devolved into a political weapon wielded by the monarchy against their enemies, and was ultimately abolished by Parliament with the enactment of the Habeas Corpus Act.

Those of you who are familiar with my scribbling know I hold the Oval Office’s current resident, Liar-In-Chief Obama, in utter and indescribable contempt. Recently we’ve been subjected to an absolute avalanche of scandals, piling up so quickly that you couldn’t stay above them if you sprouted wings.

The latest, at least as of my writing this, is that the National Security Agency (NSA) – also known as No Such Agency (an insider joke based on its secrecy) – has been monitoring the emails and phone calls of Americans on a massive scale. The full breadth of this Big Brother activity is still unfolding; almost hourly, it seems. Obama and his minions are in full damage control mode. Though it’s certainly tempting to lay this whole debacle at his feet – and the current intrusive scale probably is his responsibility – he’s right in one thing he says in his defense: that the program is “overseen by federal judges”.

th[4] (2)The problem is this: under FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978), particularly as amended under Bush by the Patriot Act of 2001 and extended by Obama, these courts function in complete secrecy, their records are not accessible by the public in any way, their proceedings are all classified, their power is extremely wide-reaching and broadly defined, and they almost never deny any application for a warrant.

As far as I’m concerned, this meets the definition of a “star chamber”. Throw in the near-universal spying on the activities of law-abiding citizens and you have the “arbitrary and oppressive” abuse thrown in for good measure.

Our system of government is based on several fundamental principles, one of which is that our courts function in public, ensuring their fairness, which can be verified by the citizenry using their own eyes and ears. There are certain narrowly-defined exceptions that occasionally justify in camera sessions, such as the protection of the identities of minors, but those exceptions are rare. Though our Grand Juries use secret proceedings, they’re composed of citizen members, not government-employed judges. The FISA courts operate in complete secrecy, and are a corruption of our liberty; we’re supposed to “trust” the government itself to oversee its own operations in a manner that doesn’t threaten that liberty.

Please. That doesn’t even pass the snigger test. We’ve recently seen how well that’s been working out. IRS abuses, anyone? Fast & Furious? Benghazi? … Bueller?

The Founders must be rolling over in their graves.

© Brian Baker 2013