The Corner

Not All Truth Telling Is Virtuous

As the crusader for liberty Edward Snowden chooses to flee to totalitarian Russia in anticipation of finding a final soft place to land in some  socialist dictatorship (probably Cuba or Venezuela), Senator Rand Paul continues to defend him as a “truthteller.” Obviously, Senator Paul is not indifferent to our national security and I’m sure he believes the United States must have national defense secrets and must gather intelligence about hostile foreign threats. That being the case, what is the point of praising Snowden as a truthteller when he is now a fugitive from justice whose attractiveness to regimes hostile to the United States is the truth he can tell them about our defense secrets?

I am also sure Senator Paul does not approve of the traitorous sharing of U.S. classified intelligence with unfriendly foreign governments. When he praises Snowden, I’m certain he is referring to the former NSA contractor’s revelations to the American people about NSA intelligence collection activities. But, as I discussed in my column this weekend, those programs have been known — for many years — to our representatives on Capitol Hill. Indeed, Snowden defenders like New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler claim Snowden’s revelations to the public did not harm national security  precisely because they are old news. Rep. Nadler says the NSA efforts were not only substantially publicized by USA Today seven years ago, they were also argued over by Congress during the debates over the PATRIOT Act reauthorizations and FISA overhaul. Moreover, members of the judiciary and intelligence committees have long had access to all the FISA court pleadings and decisions, and have gotten regular reports and briefings about the program from the executive branch. So while this all may be startling news to the public, it is something a lot closer to common knowledge in Washington. If that is the case, whatever good Snowden admirers may think he did with his opening splash — shining a spotlight on something that was known but not well known outside the Beltway — is vastly outweighed by the damage that he is doing now.   

Senator Paul’s contrast between Snowden and national intelligence director James Clapper is badly misplaced. Snowden may have told some truth “in the name of privacy” — after taking an oath not to reveal classified information as a condition of getting access to it. But now he is telling truth in the name of harming his country. His malfeasance does not look better in comparison to Clapper. Clapper may well have lied to Congress and surely gave Congress false information (although whether this succeeded in obstructing Congress is doubtful — as noted above, Congress had tons of information about the program, and one suspects Senator Wyden asked the question because he knew the answer). Still, while Clapper should be held accountable for false statements, Senator Paul is conveniently omitting the fact that Clapper’s duty was not to tell the truth — it was to explain that that the matter should not be discussed in a public hearing. Paul is right that lying to Congress is “in defiance of the law,” but so is revealing classified information in a public setting. And if Senator Wyden invited such a revelation knowing classified information was at issue, then Wyden’s conduct is equally reprehensible. 

People are understandably upset over the NSA programs. The government has done a very poor job of explaining — if it can be explained — why it is necessary to warehouse the phone records of everyone in the country in order to surveil a few hundred terror suspects. It has done a very poor job of explaining the civil liberties safeguards that are in place so that data-collection does not become spying on Americans. The PATRIOT Act’s business records provision is due to sunset in two years; if it were two months, there’s a good chance Congress would let the statute lapse, and even if it survives in 2015 — assuming we do not suffer a major attack in the meantime — that could probably only happen with dramatic changes. I get all that. But if people no longer think national defense secrets are important, or that honoring oaths is less virtuous than indiscriminate “truthtelling,” it is going to be impossible to have security. Senator Paul makes “security” seem like a frivolous concern when he uses it in the context of Clapper’s false statement (and juxtaposed to Snowden’s devotion to “privacy”). But we can only afford to be cavalier about security because we have it.

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