What Snowden has brought to the American Society

In June 2013, Edward Snowden, a former CIA contractor/system administrator, leaked thousands of National Security Agency’s (NSA) classified documents and brought the US government’s spying programs to international attention. Amongst the NSA’s programs uncovered by Snowden’s leak was the mass surveillance data-mining program called Prism. NSA tracks and collects internet and telephone communication of the American people through internet companies including Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Verizon.

While some call him a traitor who disclosed national security information, others call him a patriot who exposed unconstitutional activities of the government to the public. 

He is facing three federal charges including the violation of the Espionage Act and theft of government property, with a prison sentence up to 30 years. He ended up stranded in Moscow airport for over a month until he was granted temporary asylum by Russia. A year later, in August 2014, his asylum was extended for another three years.

On May 28 2014, NBC’s Brian Williams met Edward Snowden and interviewed him at an unknown location in Moscow for the first time by the American News Media.

"We are not here to judge whether Edward Snowden deserves life in prison, or clemency," Williams told the NBC audience. "We are here to listen for the first time to why he did what he did, and what his concerns were for our society. We are here to learn some of the things our government did in our name. In the end, perhaps some of us will change our minds. If we don't, at least we will have been informed."

🎨 Snowden’s Motives

Snowden said in the interview, as he rose to higher levels in the intelligence community and gained access to more classified documents, he realized “so many of the things that were told by the government simply aren’t true” and there were “problems of putting too much faith on intelligence system without debating them in public”.  

He described that the problem is in the way the surveillance operation targeted individuals and lacked the respect of privacy.

"You know, I don't think anybody who - who's been in the intelligence community for almost a decade as I have been - is really shocked by the specific types of general operations when they're justified. What's more shocking for anybody is not the dirtiness of the business, it's the dirtiness of the targeting. It's the dirtiness of the way these things are being used. It's the lack of respect for the public… the intrusiveness of surveillance."

Snowden explained how our daily phone use is monitored by NSA and how “dangerous” NSA’s activities are as the information can be used to keep track of our personal lives. And that is precisely where NSA’s data mining program interferes with the privacy right defined in the 4th Amendment of our Constitution.

"And all of these things can raise your level of scrutiny, even if it seems entirely innocent to you, even if you have nothing to hide. Even if you're doing nothing wrong. These activities can be misconstrued, misinterpreted, and used to harm you as an individual, even without the government having any intent to do you wrong. The problem is that the capabilities themselves are unregulated, uncontrolled, and dangerous."

"If we want to be free," Snowden said, "we can't become subject to surveillance. We can't - give away our privacy. We can't give away our rights. We have to be an active party. We have to be an active part of our government. And we have to say - there are some things worth dying for. And I think the country is one of them."

His motives was best described in the article of the Guardian on June 9th 2013 that said “my sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them”.

🎨 Its’ not “Right or Wrong” – its “National Security vs. Civil Liberty”

Secretary of States John Kerry said on NBC’s Today show "If Mr. Snowden wants to come back to the United States, we'll have him on a flight today." He said Snowden should "stand up in the United States and make his case to the American people."

While many American say “why doesn’t he come home and face justice?”, there are debates over “did he do right or wrong?”, “Did he put our country in risk or serve for the public?”, or “should Snowden be prosecuted or pardoned?”.

Being asked about the possibility of coming home, Snowden answered, "I'm not going to give myself a parade. But neither am I going to walk into a jail cell - to serve as a bad example for [whistle blower] other people in government who see something happening, some violation of the Constitution and think they need to say something about it.”

It makes us realize that we need to look beyond the debate over “right or wrong” in legal terms and try to understand what Snowden tried to bring to the American Society: the debate over National Security vs. Civil Liberty.

Following 9/11, the U.S. government adopted some controversial tactics intended to prevent future terrorist attacks including wiretapping our phone calls, secret demands for records under the Patriot Act, and FBI sting operations against people thought to be potential terrorists.  

While the Bush Administration contended these tactics helped to save American lives, as was the case of foiling the plot to bomb the New York subway in 2009, critics say they have severely damaged our individual liberties.
National Security programs, by nature, involve secret activities that invade individual rights to privacy and can violate human rights, in the name of protecting a country in the war against terror.  National security prioritizes itself over everything else including individual liberties.  Liberty is the highest regarded law/philosophy that the American people have as defined in the US constitution. It is the freedom from restriction, and unjust or undue governmental control. 

Therefore, national security and civil liberty are naturally in opposition to each other. As President Obama pointed out, “you can’t have a 100 percent security, and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.” So the question remains: How does the U.S. government, the National Security Agency (NSA), and the American public strike the right balance? 

Part of the problem in striking the right balance, however, is the fact that the public is not aware when their rights are being violated. They are kept uninformed and ignorant. Then, sometimes, the truth is unveiled from the people who work in the government and question the necessity and ethics of government’s invasive activities. They think some activities should never be allowed, or at least, the public should be informed what has been done in their name.

Despite their knowledge that being a whistle blower might jeopardize not only their jobs but also their lives, their personal moral code and values compelled them to speak out about the government’s unconstitutional activities. Snowden is one of them. 

Snowden said, "I think the most important idea is to remember that there have been times throughout American history where what is right is not the same as what is legal", "Sometimes to do the right thing, you have to break a law.”

In an interview with the Democracy Now, Chris Hedges, a senior fellow at the Nation Institute and former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times, argued that if there were no Snowden, there would be no free press.

"Without figures like Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, or Julian Assange, the blinds are drawn. We have no window into what's being done in our name, including the crimes being done in our name. Having worked as an investigative reporter, the life blood of my work were figures like these who had the moral courage to stand up and name the crimes that they witnessed."

Then, should any government employee or contractor be allowed to disclose whatever information he or she feels the public should know?

Hedges said, “That is what the active conscience is. And ... investigative reporters live off of people, who within the system of power, have a conscience to expose activities by the power elite, which are criminal in origin or unconstitutional. And that is precisely what he (Snowden) did”.

He continued, “Was it criminal? Well, yes, but It … I suppose in a technical sense it was criminal, but set it against the larger crime that has been committed by the state. When you have a system in which the criminal is in power, who then are able to carry our massive fraud with no kind of repercussion or serious regulatory investigation, … what you are in essence doing is protecting criminal activity”.

Williams asked, "Do you see yourself as a patriot?" Snowden immediately answered, "I do. I think patriot is a word that's - that's thrown around so much that it can be devalued nowadays. But being a patriot doesn't mean prioritizing service to government above all else. Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your Constitution, knowing when to protect your countrymen from the violations and encroachments of adversaries. And those adversaries don't have to be foreign countries. They can be bad policies. They can be officials who, you know, need a little bit more accountability. They can be mistakes of the government, simple overreach, and things like that - that should never have been tried, or that went wrong."

🎨 What Snowden has brought to the American Society

In the NBC News poll on May 2014, 24 percent said they back Snowden’s release of information, compared with 34 percent who disagree with his actions. Another 40 percent said they didn’t have an opinion.
While American public seems polarized on the opinion on Snowden either “Traitor” or “Patriot”, as glamorized by media, that’s not the only way American people responded to this incident. No matter what you think of Snowden, it is fair to say that, he deserves a credit for refueling the national debate over National Security vs. Civil Liberty where American people spoke out against their government and in doing so forced tangible changes in its mass surveillance data-mining program.

On December 16th 2013, the Federal Judge, Richard Leon, ruled that the NSA’s PRISM program, which collects telephone records and meta-data, likely violate the Forth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable search and seizure.  He also said that the Justice Department has done little to demonstrate that these information-collection efforts actually prevent future terrorist acts.

On May 22 2014, the US House passed the USA Freedom Act that ended the practice of bulk collection of phone records by the NSA. The legislation instructs telephone companies to continue to hold records for 18 months, but would require a judicial order for the NSA to get access to those phone records believed to be tied to terrorist plots. While it is the first measure for protecting civil liberty taken by the legislature in response to the Snowden leak, there are claims that it was just a weakened version of the original bill.  Some of the provisions that were  excluded in the final bill would have required annual public reports from the federal government on the number of individuals who had been targeted by domestic surveillance, and biannual reports on the number of court orders requested. 

Influential tech industries such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter withdrew their original support of the bill because of the loophole for the surveillance of personal internet data.

On July 29th 2014, a revised version of the USA Freedom Act was introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy. It focuses on telephone record collection and FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court reform. It creates a special advocate position that will serve as an amicus in the court and is intended to advocate for civil liberties and privacy. It also directs the office of the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with the Attorney General, to declassify significant FISA Court opinions.

Earlier this year, the former Texas Republican Legislator Ron Paul began calling for the Obama administration to grant clemency to Snowden. So far he had collected over 37,000 petitions in the effort to reach 100,000. And his son, Rand Paul, Republican Kentucky Senator, filed a class-action lawsuit in February against President Obama and the NSA on the grounds that domestic phone-record surveillance is unconstitutional. 

On April 14 2014, The Guardian and The Washington Post won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their coverage of the NSA’s surveillance program. The Pulitzer committee said, “The Guardian US sparked a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy”.

When the power of the states is enormous, there needs to be an equally powerful mechanism of checks and balances to oversee the government and keep it from becoming overreaching. Besides a formal checks and balances mechanism within the judicial and legislative systems, what we see in this country, in the wake of the Snowden leak, is the power of its people.  American people including ordinary citizens, community organizations, advocacy groups of human rights, independent press, scholars, and lawyers all keep their eye on what governments are doing. And they are ready to fight to defend their rights. Even a mainstream media could not remain silent. That is why NBC interviewed Snowden and broadcasted it.

The American response was precisely what Snowden intended to have, and in my humble opinion, this is what makes the United States superior to others. It makes this county different from others as it proves that, as powerful as our government is, it is the resilience of its people who fight hard to try to strike the balance between government power and civil liberty, thus making this country even more powerful and vigorous.

*Original Article is written in Japanese.

スノーデン事件に見る米国民の自由(=Liberty)を護る闘い その(1)

スノーデン事件に見る米国民の自由(=Liberty)を護る闘い その(2)

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