I’m of two minds as to what we should do with Edward Snowden.
Mind 1: Pursue the little traitor to the ends of the earth, drag him back to Washington in chains, and hang him from a 100-foot gallows on the mall (after a fair trial before the FISA court, of course).
Mind 2: After the local buzzards have had their way with him (the ones with wings, not wing-tips), cut him down and give him a posthumous Presidential pardon, a state funeral, burial at Arlington and the Medal of Freedom.
Fortunately, we can do both.
Snowden needs to be punished as a traitor not just to deter future traitor wannabes, but because his treason has done incalculable damage to the country’s security.
Gen. Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA and the NSA before that, says the information Snowden stole informs the country’s adversaries “of American intelligence’s tactics, techniques and procedures.”
Glenn Greenwald, the reporter for Britain’s Guardian newspaper who is Snowden’s journalistic enabler, agrees. He says Snowden has documents that are “basically the instruction manual for how the NSA is built … very sensitive, detailed blueprints of how the NSA does what they do.”
And “there are already reports of counterterrorism targets changing their communications patterns,” Hayden says.
“And I would lose all respect for China’s Ministry of State Security and Russia’s FSB [formerly the KGB] if they have not already fully harvested Snowden’s digital data trove,” he adds.
Some leftist and libertarian apologists for Snowden argue that these national security concerns are grotesquely overblown, that the supposed nothing foreign threats are largely a product of neoconservative fever swamps, and that the path to true national security is to stop provoking other nations, peoples or religions.
It is a narrative that seems plausible to a lot of people, and is likely to remain plausible to them — right up to the next time some excitable boys fly an airliner into a skyscraper, or a nuclear power plant, or a football sta dium on game day, or blow up a van full of explosives in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge at rush hour, or merely shoot up the Pearl Street Mall on a Saturday night. Or until someone sets off a nuke in lower Manhattan.
Then they’ll start howling about intelligence failures.
Leftists and libertarians may be loath to admit it, but the United States and the American people have real enemies. There are actually people out there who want to kill Americans and destroy the United States — and who, given the opportunity, would launch attacks that would make the 9/11 attack look like a walk in the park.
Snowden has made the job of protecting the American homeland and the American people orders of magnitude harder, by essentially handing over the complete order of battle of the lead agency in detecting threats to America’s adversaries. For that he should hang.
But at the same time, Snowden has performed a service of incalculable value for the American people — by exposing the existence of a dagger pointed at the heart of American liberty.
What Snowden has revealed is that the government’s counter-terrorism programs, which have had undeniable success in keeping people safe, are based on the government seeing and knowing — everything.
Snowden’s disclosures, and the subsequent congressional hearings and press investigations of government surveillance, have made it clear that the answer to today’s version of the Watergate question, “What did the government know, and when did it know it?” is:
“It knows everything that it is possible to know, and it has known it since it became possible to know it.”
In other words, it has become the government that knows too much.
In the interest of defending the American people against the threats of asymmetrical warfare in the nuclear age, the United States government has transformed itself into a surveillance state, which, if allowed to evolve unchecked, will transmogrify into a totalitarian state.
The problem is that once the government has the capability of collecting information that reveals potential terrorism and crime, it must collect it.
And once it has collected the information, it must act on it. It can’t help itself. To do otherwise would be dereliction of duty — and would actually be immoral.
The way to prevent the emergence of a totalitarian state that will inevitably evolve from the surveillance state that is now in place is to dismantle the surveillance state and not collect the information in the first place — and to explicitly agree to live dangerously in the interest of living free.
Whether a country that is crawling with nanny statists and neurotics who are afraid of everything from guns to fracking to Big Gulps to their own shadows has the guts to abandon the surveillance state remains to be seen. I doubt it.
At any rate, for alerting the American people to the existence of the surveillance state, and for doing so in a way that is forcing us to confront its reality and its implications, Snowden deserves to be recognized as a hero.
Posthumously, of course. Respond: firstname.lastname@example.org
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.