Some are condemning Edward Snowden as a traitor, while others label him a hero. Either way, Snowden’s life as he’s known it has come to an end.
The 29-year-old high school dropout turned computer whiz is at the center of one of the United States’ biggest controversies — the secret collection of cell phone and electronic data from its citizens and foreigners.
The controversy strikes at the heart of a U.S. citizen’s perceived right to privacy.
Snowden, who operated under the code name Verax in his dealings with the Washington Post, disclosed information that was — and continues to be — damaging to the U.S. government, both through the Post and the Guardian, a British newspaper.
He says the reason he blew the whistle on covert data gathering by the U.S. government was the federal government’s surveillance had grown so powerful and intrusive that he was compelled to denounce it. “The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong,” Snowden said Sunday.
Initially, his identity was unknown, but Snowden, no doubt realizing his days of anonymity were short, revealed his identity Sunday in a 12-minute video with the Guardian.
The revelations leaked by Snowden last week were quickly condemned by the White House and, in a rare show of nonpartisanship, much of Congress. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was blunt in his assessment Tuesday on a morning TV news show. “He’s a traitor,” Boehner said. “The disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk. It shows our adversaries what our capabilities are. And it’s a giant violation of the law.”
On his Campaign for Liberty website, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul — a libertarian Texas Republican who Snowden supported in his 2012 presidential bid — had the opposite take: “The Fourth Amendment is clear; we should be secure in our persons, houses, papers, and effects, and all warrants must have probable cause,” his statement reads. “Today the government operates largely in secret, while seeking to know everything about our private lives – without probable cause and without a warrant.
“The government does not need to know more about what we are doing. We need to know more about what the government is doing. We should be thankful for individuals like Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald who see injustice being carried out by their own government and speak out, despite the risk. They have done a great service to the American people by exposing the truth about what our government is doing in secret.”
Lawmakers and the White House, who defend the cellphone and Internet snooping, say that the practice has prevented terrorist attacks and has been instrumental in collecting data on those who would do our nation harm. And they say everything was properly conducted, and Congress was kept informed on the program.
What government officials fail to understand is that the Internet is much like a wild beast that is taken in as a pet. It can turn on you at any time and it very likely will, as it has done here. The thought that data mining of this magnitude could continue indefinitely and in secret was poor judgment on the part of the federal government.
And now that it is in the open, Americans are looking at our government differently. Suddenly, the plots of conspiracy movies and espionage novels in which information is surreptitiously collected and misused have a much too real edge to them.
Our friends are also looking at us differently. On Tuesday, the European Parliament was questioning its cooperation with the U.S. government regarding data sharing.
And with Snowden in hiding while he looks for asylum with a nation that has a weak extradition agreement with the United States — or none at all — America faces the very real risk that Snowden and what he knows will end up in the hands of a less-than-friendly government. Russian officials, licking their chops at the thought of embarrassing the U.S., are sending signals that he may be welcome there. And he was last known to be in Hong Kong, which gives the Chinese government an advantage.
Snowden has kicked up a hornet’s nest, there’s no doubt about that. How much it will impact U.S. security and how he will be viewed in the long run are two questions still up for debate.
But an even more important debate is whether we, as Americans, want our government to have this level of scrutiny on us. Our lawmakers may have known about all the details, but rank-and-file Americans didn’t. These laws were implemented with little resistance after 9/11, in large part because many Americans were willing to forfeit personal freedoms for added security. The question now is whether that scale has tipped too far away from freedom and too heavily toward a police state.
Meanwhile, when the Internet and its email were new technologies expanding in use and cell phone calls could be picked up on radio scanners, there was a sense that you should never say or write something that you wouldn’t want the whole world to hear or read.
That, it turns out, is still good advice.