Since the NSA whistelblower identified himself as Edward Snowden, an intelligence official who has worked with the CIA and NSA, on Sunday, reactions have been mixed.
Already, two top Congress officials – Senator Diane Feinstein and House Speaker John Boehner – have called Snowden a traitor, Feinstein going so far as to say he is guilty of treason.
Treason? No. Having an idealistic sense of what our country should and should not do? Yes.
The reason Snowden leaked the potentially hazardous (to the U.S. government) onslaught of documents to the Washington Post and The Guardian was because, as he told the Guaridan, “I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in.”
The NSA should not track ordinary American electronic communications because we, as Americans living in America with an American idealism, want to be free from a dragnet of government oversight.
Working for the CIA and and in the defense industry in an IT-type role, Snowden claims he was given a high degree of access into documents that officials have said only 30 to 40 people have access to.
It was these documents, he told the Guardian, that horrified Snowden. Everyone in the U.S. almost expects that the government – through a complex web of the CIA, FBI, NSA, and a bunch of other acronymns – is utilizing this newfound “Internet” to collect data. It’s only natural since now CIA agents can track terrorists with keystrokes. But tracking anything and everything?
“Mass surveillance is a violation of universal rights,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation stated in a blog post condemning the NSA’s actions.
As a result, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is among a group of 86 civil liberties and Internet companies saying that spying on American electronic communications is not permissible.
“This type of blanket data collection by the government strikes at bedrock American values of freedom and privacy. This dragnet surveillance violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which protect citizens’ right to speak and associate anonymously and guard against unreasonable searches and seizures that protect their right to privacy,” the groups said in an open letter sent to U.S. lawmakers.
This was part of the reason Snowden decided to leak the information. The NSA, Snowden said, “are intent on making every conversation and every form of behavior in the world known to them.”
The primary goal of the NSA, which is part of the Defense Department as the National Security Agency, is to get timely and accurate information on foreign powers and individuals to foster national security, according to its mission statement.
According to Executive Order 12333, two of the NSA’s goals are:
- Collection of signals intelligence information for national foreign intelligence purposes in accordance with guidance from the Director of Central Intelligence
- Establishment and operation of an effective unified organization for signals intelligence activities, except for the delegation of operational control over certain operations that are conducted through other elements of the Intelligence Community. No other department or agency may engage in signals intelligence activities except pursuant to a delegation by the Secretary of Defense;
A glimpse at the Executive Order did not find any explicit cases where the NSA’s goals are to conduct domestic intelligence, although it is not mentioned either way. However, the FBI is generally in charge of domestic intelligence.
That being said, the NSA collecting data on American companies headquartered in America – like Facebook, Google, Yahoo – and on American citizens using those companies is a complete overstepping of the government’s authority.
Since this NSA data collection system was covert, most Americans did not know about it. The U.S. government should not be able to pick up Jane Doe’s Facebook messages and emails without her consent and with her thinking she is being private since Facebook has told its users they can expect privacy.
Snowden saw this and did something about it. Sure, he could have talked to his employers or tried talking to someone one higher up in the NSA to voice his concerns. But he was likely to not get far. (Still, that is no excuse not to try, so he could have at least tried it.)
Regardless, coming out to the media was a powerful step that might enact some change. So far, according to media outlets, the Obama administration, NSA and a bunch of other semi-impacted agencies like the Justice Department have not done anything. But they will: They’ll probably try to snatch him from Hong Kong first (there are reports that he left his hotel). And there will probably be closed-door sessions in Congress to sort out this mess.
Because Snowden is, to many of them, a bug. He’s a whistelblower, a pesky guy that did something illegal (yes, it is illegal since he signed confidentiality contracts) in the better interests of the nation. But not in the better interests of career intelligence officials who have used the aftermath of 9/11 to enact a dragnet of intelligence to squash further dissident.
Snowden did something illegal, yes. But he is no traitor to this country: He is a mild-mannered (according to the Guardian) government intelligence official with adept skills at hacking.
And he realized that what his country was doing behind the backs of 300 million drug-dealing, democracy-lovin’, gun-toting students, businessmen, Christians and atheists was wrong.