The Snowden Affair: Three Issues

As I wrote yesterday, the hidden story in the Edward Snowden case is the rush to judge him, favorably or unfavorably, before we have a  clear understanding of exactly what he did, why he did it, and how he did it. It is early days with this story, and those who rush to call him a hero or a traitor appear to be more interested in scoring points for their own cause than understanding the matter at hand. This is a shame, because in the process they have made it harder for us to examine three distinct issues that each deserve careful and separate examination.

The first issue is the matter of civil liberties. Any American should welcome a healthy debate in this country about the permissible limits of governmental reach. Personally, I don’t want the government either in my pants or in my hard drive, but neither do I wish to see us blind-sided by any enemy, foreign or domestic, who might plot death and destruction right under all of our noses. We must pursue this debate with vigor and not allow our freedom to be eroded simply because we were not keeping an eye on our own government.

A second and separate discussion needs to take place about Mr. Snowden, one that must happen in the wake of public discovery. We need to better understand his method, his motives, and the process by which all of this took place, and evaluate all three. When we have done that we will know whether he should stand as an example or as a warning. As a nation, as a people, we have to know either way.

Finally, we need to examine our own system. We must ask whether we have adequate institutions to provide whistleblowers (both government and corporate) a legitimate channel to air their revelations here at home, rather than from a far-off land under cloak of a power that is at best ambivalent to the US, if not a latent enemy. A whistleblower who cannot speak out about government processes that endanger liberty represents as much of a national failure as sending a soldier to war with a gun that will not fire.

As this remarkable story plays out, we should make sure we are examining all three of these issues, not as a mish-mash, but as distinct matters that have separate and grave implications for the future of America.

Rushing to Judge Snowden

Is Snowden a Hero? / SnowdenHK: 香港聲援斯諾登遊行 Hong...
Hong Kong Rally to Support Edward Snowden (Photo credit: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML)

In the matter of self-proclaimed cyber libertarian Edward Snowden, we have a remarkable story that continues to unfold, and the longer it does so, the more questions that arise.

But let us be clear: anyone crowning Snowden either a hero or a traitor at this point is doing so on incomplete information, and is probably doing so based more on his or her political inclinations than on a thoughtful assessment of the facts. That would be alright, except that it shrouds the need for journalists, government, and all of us to continue to dig into this story to understand the whole truth.

It is possible to make a case that regardless of the final outcome, Snowden has made a contribution to liberty in America by making a story out of the erosion of civil liberties in this country. That may be true.

But in order to assess Snowden and his legacy, in order to decide if he is a hero or a traitor, we must have a clearer idea of how important his contributions really are, and we must balance that against any collateral damage he has done (intentionally or otherwise) to the interests of the nation.  If, in the end, his contributions are indeed deemed greater, then he deserves to be deemed a hero. At a time where investigations have just begun and the story continues to unfold, we are a long way from knowing whether that is the case.