For some months now the American public has been tasked with what to think about the Eric Snowden case and the NSA. This boils down to what citizens have a right to say, what the government knows and how they know it.
There is a good reason that the first amendment to the Constitution is the freedom of speech; it is because those who wrote that document had firmly in their minds the restrictions of what they said and wrote under British rule. They believed that dissent was healthy and that any truly free society needed to allow for dissent, sometimes to the extreme. Imbedded in the first amendment is the freedom of the press. Pre-revolutionary dissenters usually wrote under a pen-name so their words could not be held against them in a court of law. The press was viewed as a way to publicly discuss possible government transgressions against the people in an open and free forum. And in almost every attempt to limit these freedoms, the US Supreme Court has seldom narrowed its scope. A well-known exception is the law against yelling “fire” in a movie theater. Threats of violence are also a prohibited speech.
Even before our country was founded, governments understood the need for secrecy in certain of its dealings. Throughout recorded history, governments have collect information about other countries, some of it needed to be held in secret. Always in such cases the sake of national security was seen at stake. As with anything, some, if not all, governments have taken such things to an extreme, far beyond reasonableness. Other time, governments have thwarted or restricted its people’s desire to openly dissent. Such instances still occur regularly in many parts of the world. Closed societies such as China and North Korea are a few of the more prominent who do not allow much freedom of speech.
The United States is unquestionably one of the most open societies in the world. We pride ourselves on that very fact and like to hold it up to the world. The problem with that is the general public’s lack of understanding of classified material, and the government’s overreach with over-classifying and its methods of gathering information.
Eric Snowden is absolutely guilty of something, which is for a court to decide. He is absolutely a coward who knew he had caused great harm and who absolutely knew the consequences of his actions. He is absolutely guilty of being a coward. While it is certainly difficult to whistle-blow on government agencies, particularly those dealing with intelligence gathering, it is far from impossible.
The Federal Government was certainly remiss in its due diligence when it hired Snowden in the first place. But before being allowed access to classified materials, Snowden was fully briefed and signed documents that he acknowledge a full understanding of what was expected in his guarding against release of any classified material. That he saw and revealed government misconduct is an entirely different discussion. A reasonable person who had discovered such things, and feared reprisal from his agency for whistle-blowing, knows there are two groups of people who lives are dedicated to ferreting out government misconduct, the Inspector General of each agency, and the Department of Justice.
The NSA’s practices were brought into sharp focus, as they should have been. But the manner in which it got there is indefensible. Snowden released thousands and thousands of documents which had absolutely nothing to do with the NSA’s purported spying on American citizens. Not only did that achieve nothing, it comprised our standing in the world. That compromise may take many years to fix.
Intelligence gathering agencies are paranoid by both necessity and legacy. Governments spy on other governments, friends as well as foes, but none want such facts aired in public. It is unlikely the German chancellor was particularly surprised by anything revealed, but to show otherwise would reveal their own complicity. Such events are almost always revealed in privacy and repaired that same way.
There are formal groups in the U.S., the ACLU not being the least, who make it their job to protect freedoms and play watchdog of the government. Snowden could easily have appealed to the ACLU and caused the NSA and Federal Government deserved shame without compromising national security. At some point Russia will certainly see him as a liability and he will be returned to the U.S. Other countries are unlikely to allow him a place to hide.
The U.S. press, for its part, has failed to report evenhandedly, portraying Snowden as something he is not, a martyr. They need to report the true of his actions and, while not absolving the NSA, reporting that Snowden too has a price to pay.