In a single weekend, Edward Snowden became one of the most famous — and wanted — men in the world. This is because last week Snowden, a former contractor technician for the National Security Agency, blew the lid off of a domestic spying program straight from George Orwell’s worst nightmare.
America may never be the same again.
As explained by Glenn Greenwald, the reporter with The Guardian who worked with Snowden to expose the massive NSA eavesdropping programs, “There is a massive apparatus within the United States government that with complete secrecy has been building this enormous structure that has only one goal, and that is to destroy privacy and anonymity, not just in the United States but around the world.”
For a decade, the political establishment — Big Government advocates from the Left and the Right — mocked privacy activists over their warnings about the dangerous rise of a Surveillance State. During this time, I cautioned repeatedly that one day we would wake to find ourselves in the grip of a digital dystopia in which virtually our every electronic communication is subject to surreptitious eavesdropping by government agents. Snowden’s revelations confirms this nightmare scenario.
U.S. officials are now scouring the earth looking for this 29-year old geek who many call a hero, and others a traitor. U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, immediately labeled Snowden a “defector,” and said he should be extradited at once to the United States to be prosecuted to the “full extent of the law.” Meanwhile, privacy activists and other whistleblowers have rallied behind him.
For me, it matters far less whether we demonize or deify this one man, than it does to bring true transparency to what the NSA and other federal agencies are doing to abuse, circumvent, and downright break federal laws designed to limit and control surreptitious snooping by Uncle Sam.
Snowden’s revelations far transcend in importance the particulars of the process he employed. The concerns he has raised — which involve damning evidence of an unchecked, massive program of surreptitious electronic eavesdropping (“SEE”) by the NSA, the FBI and other government agencies — are forcing us to confront the most serious public policy and legal issues we, as a nation of free people, have faced in decades, if ever.
The questions, prompted by leaks from Snowden and others in the last few days, present an existential crisis about what it is to be both free and safe as citizens in the United States.
Our nation was built on the principle of the rule of law; the notion that people are most free if they cede only a minimum of their natural rights to government, limited by a written Constitution, in order to secure liberty.
Yet now we are witnessing a government unbridled by the rule of law, which has become subservient to the whims of its leaders; and based not on the goal of ensuring liberty and justice, but on constructing arbitrary conditions of “security.”
In this paradigm, the Fourth Amendment no longer carries any real significance for we are asked to accede to the principle that a president and his administration posses “inherent power” — superseding any other authority or limitation — to secretly gather, store, and analyze an infinite amount of information gathered from the private communications of millions of law-abiding citizens.
Distressingly, the failsafe on such unbridled power, supposed to be exercised by the Congress through its oversight responsibilities, has been sorely lacking. Instead, we have the spectacle of senior Senators like Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) defending actions by the NSA as beneficent because — as we are asked to accept on faith — they have “kept us safe.” We are admonished to resist the urge to limit such extreme power because, in their Orwellian worldview, “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
This is the childish solipsism to which our cherished, constitutionally guaranteed rights have been reduced.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that Democrats faced a moral crisis as the Obama Administration turned the liberal vision of Big Government into an omnipotent police state in which citizens’ rights are pre-empted by the collective and over-arching need for “security.” However, Republicans, too, face this identity crisis. The people of the United States, for the first time as a result of these leaks, are becoming privy to the true scope of government snooping.
Our country truly is at a crossroad; one defined by philosopher Ayn Rand some seven decades ago, when she correctly observed: “When you take away a man’s privacy, you gain the power to control him absolutely.” “Control” — that is what this is really all about.
Will we take the “constitutional road” (to use James Madison’s description of the form of limited government laid out in the Federalist Papers), and muzzle the humongous, “security” driven Surveillance State that threatens to engulf us? Or, will we meekly succumb to it; complacent in the comfort that comes from a benign but all-powerful federal government? The next few months may very well answer that crucial question. Liberty itself hangs in the balance.