If the attacks of 9/11 taught us anything, it’s that we must connect the dots. But before we can connect the dots, we must collect the dots. Those railing against the National Security Agency don’t seem to get that.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to fault anyone for being troubled by the government’s tendency to accrue power and erode freedoms. As the Canadian author George Jonas instructed me in an e-mail: “Fido guards the chicken coop but likes to taste chicken no less than the fox.”
This is an important debate, one that Edward Snowden has energized — among the reasons the New York Times on the left and Senator Rand Paul on the right think he deserves leniency. I’m not persuaded. Government employees and contractors take an oath to protect the secrets entrusted to them. If Snowden believed the NSA’s intelligence gathering crossed a line, he could have gone to the agency’s inspector general, to members of Congress, or to a serious and responsible journalist. Instead, he stole hundreds of thousands of secret documents and divulged many of them (evidently not all, at least not yet) knowing full well that America’s worst enemies would be among the recipients.
His disclosures reveal no practices not overseen by the executive branch, Congress, and the courts — and none that clearly violates the law. He did not emulate civil-rights activists by committing an act of civil disobedience and then accepting the judgment of a jury. Instead, he has sought refuge from oppressive regimes. For these and other reasons, Snowden does not deserve to be called a whistleblower. He is not a victim. And he is certainly no hero.
He does, however, fancy himself something of a philosopher. In a message broadcast on British television last month, the 30-year-old exile sorrowfully instructs the world that “a child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll [sic] never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves — an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. Privacy matters; privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.”
First, no one’s thoughts are being recorded and analyzed by the NSA. Second, many celebrities have much less privacy than you and I. Do you really think that makes it impossible for Kim Kardashian to determine who she is and who she wants to be?
Third, all this has nothing to do with the NSA’s collecting “metadata” — billions of electrons that are preserved for use only when evidence of intended malfeasance comes to light. “The National Security Agency does not listen to Americans’ phone calls and it is not reading Americans’ e-mails,” Representative Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said. “None of these programs allow that.”
“The call-records program is not surveillance,” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote. “It does not collect the content of any communication, nor do the records include names or locations. The NSA only collects the type of information found on a telephone bill: phone numbers of calls placed and received, the time of the calls and duration. . . . The NSA uses these records to identify connections between known and suspected terrorists (as well as terror conspirators and supporters). . . . It is necessary for the NSA to obtain ‘the haystack’ of records in order to find the terrorist ‘needle.’”
Diminishing privacy is a legitimate concern but one that has little to do with signals intelligence and a great deal to do with modernity and advancing technology. If you used a credit card today, strangers know what you bought and how much you paid. If you walk into a store, a camera probably records your entrance. Your whereabouts can be tracked using the cell phone in your pocket. Use it to make a call or send a text or check out the prices of cars or clothes or firearms online, and you leave a trail.
Few of those trails are followed by government cyber-trackers. But those that are can be productive: According to Feinstein, the NSA metadata program has “played a role in stopping roughly a dozen terror plots and identifying terrorism supporters in the U.S.”
Snowden’s televised message contained this additional bit of kumbaya sophistry: “Together, we can find a better balance, end mass surveillance, and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.”
As if the NSA cares a whit how Snowden or anyone else “feels.” It is intentions that concern them — especially those involving mass murder.
In neither his short television message nor his long interview with the Washington Post last month does Snowden say a word about terrorism. He talks of government having “the power to take away life or freedom” — ignoring the groups and regimes openly committed to what they call a jihad aimed at extinguishing the freedom and lives of “infidels.”
Does Snowden not believe a war is being waged? Or does he think we can “end it” merely through exercises in “confidence building” and “conflict resolution”? Or is his thesis that those whose job is to stop those whose job is to kill us don’t really need intel?
Concern that the long war now underway will lead to a government power grab is not unreasonable. There may be useful reforms that can be implemented — e.g., maximizing security while minimizing intrusions on privacy; worrying less about the collection of data and more about who gets access to it and for what purposes; keeping Fido on a short leash while not giving the fox easier access to the chicken coop. But I’d be deeply skeptical about seeing Edward Snowden and associates as allies in these efforts.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.