The Snowden Dilemma

[This was previously posted in my blog, Strategic Ramblings.]

As I–and everyone else– follow the slew of articles on Edward Snowden, I saw the following quote from Lord Acton:

Every thing secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.

I agree wholeheartedly with Acton’s statement. The debate revolving around the former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor raises some intriguing questions. Once upon a time, I held a security clearance–not a particularly high one–but nonetheless a promise to keep the secrets I was exposed to in the process of my job. I took that clearance deadly serious and recognized its value and importance. However, I had it easy. I never faced any great moral dilemma over keeping my promise. Snowden’s situation was quite different.

What does one do when one sees one’s employer engaging in behavior that is illegal and/or unconstitutional under the normal definitions of words as we commonly use them. That is, the government has creatively taken words like “facility” and “targeting” and put an Orwellian twist on them to make a wild violation of U.S. citizens’ reasonable expectation of privacy in order to lawyer the program into one that some might define as “technically” legal. (e.g. the Washington Post article said that huge sets of information data were labeled “facilities” [suspected involved in terrorism] in order to justify all that information being handed to the government.) Of course, the national security leadership has been singing a refrain of “we don’t target U.S. citizens.” What is left unsaid is that while they don’t “target” U.S. citizens they come into a lot of information on citizens because: a.) they have a very low standard for determining likelihood of foreignness, and b.) they are collecting information on individuals regardless of whether they are suspected of anything.

So if you are Edward Snowden, you are a low-level employee. Your superiors don’t give a damn what you think about the legality of the program. You can’t complain to anyone because no one who cares is cleared to hear it, and those who are cleared to hear it have a vested interested in maintaining (if not expanding) the intrusions.  What would you tell Snowden if you were his friend, and not a complete stranger with your own feelings on the subject? That’s a tough one.

Secrecy may be necessary in some cases, but I’m uncomfortable writing the government a blank check. Officials will say, “it’s not a blank check, we have internal and external oversight.” First of all, the idea of “internal oversight” is not particularly confidence inspiring. That’s a little too much like “Otis” from the Andy Griffith Show letting himself in and out of the drunk tank as he saw fit for my taste. Second, how can any of us know that a judge acting on a FISA warrant treats it with the same seriousness as a case in which their decision will be open to public scrutiny? I don’t know, but I don’t hear of a lot of warrants in, say, bank robbery cases in which the phone records of millions of people unsuspected of a crime are to be handed over for a period of months.  Yes, finding and uncovering terrorists is more difficult than building a case against other criminals, but I remain skeptical because–as Lord Acton said, “Every thing secret degenerates, even the administration of justice…”

3 thoughts on “The Snowden Dilemma

  1. Bravo Bernie! I loved your analogy for internal/external oversight…that (Otis) made me laugh!!
    Personally, I find that since 9/11 and all in the name of benefit and security…the war on terror has taken on an all new meaning. Infringement of personal/civil liberties and not just for Americans. As a German I am outraged that the American people are being told “we are not really spying” on Americans…just on the rest of the world. Where I can understand countries like Iran, China Afghanistan under surveillance, I do not comprehend why it is necessary to suspect everyone else…
    Where will all this lead?

    Like

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