In 1791, Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon, a surveillance structure where inhabitants could be watched at any angle without knowing they were being watched.
As I write this post, Edward Snowden is sleeping somewhere in a Russian airport, unable to travel. While Snowden languishes in diplomatic limbo, the American public remains at odds on whether Snowden is a traitor or a hero. Were his actions those of a conscientious whistleblower or a spy? How will history remember him? Was he justified in bringing the specifics of US government surveillance into the public eye?
The media has followed his whereabouts, published interviews with him, his father, and girlfriend, and we have all speculated on whether he should be punished or revered. Arguments against Snowden range from the irrelevant (photos of his stripper girlfriend, criticism of his youth, his desire for fame) to the purely irrational.
Endless media has been devoted to Snowden’s character, outlining his arrogance, his audacity, his readiness to value his own judgment above that of elected officials and the general public who put them in place. We are spending too much time on this.
I would argue that the very definition of a whistleblower infers these attributes and that motive is irrelevant to outcome. Disproportionate attention to Snowden’s character distracts from the real issue, NSA spying. By participating in this sideshow discussion on Snowden, we are only helping to obfuscate the injuries to American civil liberties. America’s need to discredit, punish, and exemplify perceived offenders does not discount the violation of our rights.
Let’s not get caught up in the emotional. We cannot allow Snowden to become the story. Rather, let’s focus on the information that he made public, and its repercussions on both our nation and ourselves. Have we as a nation benefited from Snowden's actions, and if so how?
Former NSA and CIA chief, Michael Hayden, has called Snowden the ‘most costly leaker of American secrets in the history of the Republic.’ In a CNN Opinion piece, he outlines three reasons why Snowden’s betrayal is in a class of its own.
1. The usual: Snowden’s actions have alerted terrorist organizations to specific American counterterrorism processes and thereby jeopardized public safety.
2. The fallacious: Snowden has undermined international trust in American corporations and thereby harmed the economy.
3. The tautological: To quote. The ‘harm of Snowden's efforts to date is the erosion of confidence in the ability of the United States to do anything discreetly or keep anything secret.’
The first theory has become the heart of public debate. The second has been speculated on recently. However, even if that argument has merit, blaming Snowden for exposing the overreach of American corporations is like shooting the messenger. The third argument is simply absurd. It is unlikely that the NSA failure to keep abusive data collection secret naturally extends to ‘secrets’ of other magnitude. It’s also disturbing that NSA would feel entitled to this secret, and then try to place blame for its own incompetency in keeping things hidden.
Let’s discuss the core debate. Namely, do we allow government and corporate encroachment on individual liberties for the promise of security and safety? And if so why? To date, the only argument I have heard is predicated on the idea that NSA surveillance is necessary in order to keep us safe. This is based on fear.
In a governing tradition where the notions of self-determination, freedom, and privacy are axiomatic, is it fair to ask us to trade these tenets in order to protect the citizenry that represents them? In this case, the decision to make this tradeoff is being made for us, and without our knowledge, which violates the democratic premise of ‘effective participation.’ Are we expected to simply trust that the government is acting in our best interests? It seems that many Americans do and this is scary.
I recently listened to the Congressional debate over the Amash Amendment, where the dangerously charismatic Michelle Bachmann spoke out in favor of protecting NSA phone record collection, in the name of never ‘forgetting’ 9/11. Proponents of giving the NSA latitude argue that government monitoring of communication has and will continue to thwart potential terrorist attacks on Americans. In the decade since 9/11, fear has led us to accept increasingly onerous violations of not only American rights and liberties, but human ones.
Let’s think about what we’ve accomplished since 9/11. We’ve approved The Patriot Act, the Espionage Act, established Gitmo, and initiated the Afghan and Iraq wars. While we’re rid of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, it seems the war on terror is far from over. When will it end?
James Fallows of The Atlantic correctly states, "The real threat from terrorism has never been the damage it does directly, even though attacks as horrific as those on 9/11. The more serious threat comes from the over-reaction, the collective insanity or the simple loss of perspective, that an attack evokes. Our government's ambition to do everything possible to keep us "safe" has put us at jeopardy in other ways."
Arguably, these ‘other ways’ involve losing sight of the freedoms that define us. While we shouldn’t ‘forget’ the victims of 9/11, let us not forget the principles that we take for granted, among them transparency and informed participation in the democratic process. We as a society have approved the Government’s unfettered ability to act in a secretive and paternalistic manner. And Its only justification is our own fear.
But this is changing. Public opinion is swinging against NSA programs. Polls from both the Washington Post and Quinnipiac show that more Americans are beginning to err in favor of privacy protections.
The 205-217 vote on the Amash Amendment transcended party lines, with inconsistent support or dissent across both parties. This is powerful. Since the debate, the US has also moved to declassify intelligence documents pertaining to the NSA’s surveillance programs and the FISA courts.
Lawmakers, journalists, politicians, celebrities, and ordinary people are joining this debate, which is the intent and spirit of the civic process. This would not have occurred without Snowden’s revelations. This makes his actions effective.
This Sunday I opened the New York Times to read the latest on the Snowden/ NSA/ Amash saga. I found no coverage in any section. I visited CNN and news was dated. A Twitter search of these terms yields days old information. Let’s face it. The American attention span is short.
As the Administration presses the public to not forget 9/11, we should also not forget this conversation, and the underlying values that define our democracy, in this case informed choice, individualism, and participatory government. If we allow fear and emotion to dictate our policies, we approach a world where we have nothing to protect.