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Edward Snowden — Hero or Traitor?

Sam Callaway

August 12, 2013

Category: Philosophy and Religion > Ethics

When asked at a Senate hearing in March of 2013 if the government was collecting "any" type of data on American citizens, Dr. James Clapper, director of national intelligence, answered a resounding "no." Anyone remotely familiar with national security policy knows that this was the whopper of all whoppers (perjury?). In fact, it has been common knowledge for years, most notably since 9/11, that our government spies on us in a myriad of different ways. And in the interest of public safety, most of us are OK with that.

Our founding fathers recognized that democracy could not flourish absent the free flow of information. An uninformed public, they reasoned, would be ripe pickings for an excessively powerful government and greedy corporatocracy. Mindful of this, the Constitution they wrote contained numerous provisions, most notably the First Amendment, designed to protect the people from an encroaching (on individual rights) government and private-enterprise system. The purpose of these protections was to assure that the freedom of speech of individuals and the press could not be unreasonably abridged.

Sadly, over the past 30 years, and particularly since 9/11, our systems of public information have become dangerously compromised. Ownership of the press and media have become increasingly consolidated, and the advent of cable news, where truth in reporting is a rare occurrence (Fox News?), has fostered an era where the public is regularly and knowingly fed erroneous information. Because of this, our ability to make collective and informed decisions has become seriously impaired.

Edward Snowden was employed by a public, for-profit corporation that was retained by the government to work on national security matters. Forgetting for the moment the propriety of such an arrangement, Mr. Snowden was granted top security clearance along with, we are told, some 4,000,000 other Americans. While at work, he discovered that government snooping into the private affairs of Americans — no secret to most of us — was being undertaken on a monumental scale. Virtually all domestic telephone conversations and e-mails (metadata) were being swept up into data banks, creating unprecedented potential for the surveillance of all Americans.

When Mr. Snowden subsequently released a truckload of NSA documents to The Guardian, revealing the full scope of the government's intrusions, the responses were swift, primarily from the extremes. Branded a traitor by many, summary execution was suggested. Still others called Snowden a hero, another stretch in my view. Perhaps just another American frustrated by being lied to by his government would be a more apt characterization.

Did Edward Snowden break the law? Were he here, would he be punished? Probably, but that begs the question of what a private citizen is to do with sensitive information when confronted by a breakdown in the accountability of elected and appointed public officials. It might be useful to step back and recall that we are a nation built upon the civil disobedience of individuals who took great personal risk to expose government wrongdoing, such as the Boston Tea Party, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Daniel Ellsberg, and Bill McKibbon, to name a few.

For Mr. Snowden to reveal the full extent of the government's snooping required courage, and necessitated that he conclude that the public's right to know was greater than his personal well-being. Moreover, the national conversation precipitated by his revelations represents a long overdue step towards open government. I believe he performed a valuable act of public service, for which we owe him a debt of gratitude.