Edward Snowden, 29-year-old former CIA technician and civilian contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton, has openly acknowledged that he is reporter Glenn Greenwald’s source: the man who told The Guardian about the massive collection of phone records and Internet communications by the NSA, all in the name of what we used to call “the war on terror.”
Snowden knows he will be prosecuted for his actions. But he nevertheless chose to reveal his identify because he believes he did nothing wrong. He says he carefully calculated which documents to leak and which not to, releasing only those which were “legitimately in the public interest” and would put no lives in danger. “There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over,” he said in a video statement, “because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is.”
And Snowden left no doubts on why he did what he did: “I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”
So now that we know who the whistleblower is, the only remaining question is: What should happen to him? That, of course, should depend, at least in part, on the impact of his actions. Did he, in fact, put any lives at risk? Did he jeopardize our national security? Or did he simply inform the American people about something we should have known about all along? Is Edward Snowden, in other words, the next Daniel Ellsberg or the next Benedict Arnold?
Interestingly enough, the answer to that question doesn’t fall along normal political lines. John Boehner and Dianne Feinstein think Snowden’s a traitor. Michael Moore, Glenn Beck and Rand Paul think he’s a hero. Not because he broke the law, but because he blew the whistle on a massive overreach of government and a gross invasion of privacy.
Indeed, regarding the NSA, it’s hard to make the case that our national security has been threatened by reports in The Guardian and The Washington Post. After all, the NSA’s been collecting “metadata” for seven years. Leaders of both parties in Congress admit they knew about it and supported it. The president knew about it and defends it. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court knew about it and approved it. The phone companies and the Internet providers knew about it and turned over the data. Everybody, it seems, knew the government was amassing information on our phone calls and emails — except you and me. Why?
That’s the more important question. We all understand the need for balance. We recognize, in these dangerous times, the need to sacrifice some privacy in order to keep us all safe. We know about and accept surveillance cameras on city streets, for example. We’ve grown used to taking our shoes off for TSA or showing ID before we enter many office buildings. So why didn’t we know the government was also keeping a record of every phone call we make and every email we send? If the NSA program is so vital and so effective, shouldn’t we have been informed of it and all the lives it has allegedly saved?
Instead, we see a repeat of what’s become a familiar rhythm since Sept. 11. In the name of “national security,” the government, under both Democrats and Republicans, assumes more and more power and curtails our basic freedoms. And, instead of standing up for our rights, we go meekly along. We forget how much wrongdoing — the Bay of Pigs, the Pentagon Papers, massacres of civilians in Iraq — has been covered up under the ruse of national security. We have become a nation of sheep. Soon we won’t have any rights left.
Snowden summed it up best: “This is the truth. This is what’s happening. You should decide whether we need to be doing this.” I have decided. I’m convinced we don’t need to be doing this, but if we are, at least we Americans deserve to know about it.
As for Snowden, don’t throw him in prison. Erect a statue to him on the Washington Mall — as an American patriot.
Bill Press is host of a nationally-syndicated radio show.