Sometimes it’s not so easy to know which side to be on.
Today both Glenn Beck and Daniel Ellsberg are staunchly defending the actions of Edward Snowden, the man who exposed the NSA data-mining operation to the press. If you side with Beck you also must side with Ellsberg.
More sensibly, Max Boot denounces Snowden as a traitor. Espionage by any rationale is still espionage:
But Snowden, like Bradley Manning (and, for that matter, like Robert Hannsen, Aldrich Ames, the Walker family and other high-level spies), is a homegrown traitor who managed to escape the tightest security. It is time to readjust the assumptions on which U.S. counter-intelligence operates–and time, too, to make the most strenuous efforts to move Snowden out of China and bring him to justice for the serious crimes he has committed.
Far from striking a blow for political liberty and freedom of expression, he is unwittingly helping the most illiberal individuals in the world–jihadist terrorists–to more effectively attack us.
Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey offers a judicious explanation of the need for data mining:
Even zealots do not dispute that the Patriot Act, as amended, authorizes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that was established under FISA to grant permission to gain access to the information at issue here. As to intercepting the content of foreign communications, I think it is best put starkly: The Constitution and U.S. laws are not a treaty with the universe; they protect U.S. citizens. Foreign governments spy on us and our citizens. We spy on them and theirs. Welcome to the world.
Real damage was done last week by Edward Snowden, who on Sunday claimed credit for leaking the secrets he learned while working for NSA contractors. Every time we tell terrorists how we can detect them, we encourage them to find ways to avoid detection.
Alan Dershowitz believes that we should not limit ourselves to Snowden but should question the motives of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the story:
The initial revelation was made by a man named Glenn Greenwald, who wrote about them in the Guardian and who has been all over the media taking a victory lap. Greenwald is the personification of the paranoid streak in American politics. He is more of an ideologue than a reporter. He has long been an apologist for terrorism—a word he believes serves only as an excuse for violence and oppression by America and its allies. He has pushed false stories that his paper was forced to backpedal on, such as an AP report blaming the incendiary video “The Innocence of Islam” on an Israeli Jew living in California. He is Chomsky-like in his willingness to blame most of the world’s ills on the United States, Israel, the Obama Administration and liberals who do not buy into his radical worldview.
Greenwald inhabits the same political extreme as Daniel Ellsberg.
For his part Dershowitz recommends that we find a middle ground between the extreme positions. We cannot fight terrorism without taking all needed measures to protect ourselves and to defeat our enemy. Yet, we need to balance the need for security with our basic liberties. Clearly, it is a matter of national debate, not a decision to be made unilaterally by an aspiring martyr.
And reform of the current excesses of surveillance is indeed necessary. There is too much secrecy, too little accountability, too much classification, not enough information, too much speculation. This all feeds into the paranoid streak because we don’t know what we don’t know. For those who trust the government this informational lacunae is an excuse for inaction. For those who do not trust the government, it is an excuse for ranting and raving instead of legislating compromised reform.
It is important not to lump all forms of intrusion together, but rather to consider them category by category.
Many of those who have happily nominated Snowden for sainthood are ignoring the complexities of the issue in order to proclaim that they were right all along.
Dershowitz points out that collecting information about who is calling whom is not the same as listening in on phone calls. The principle of collecting such data has been upheld by the Supreme Court in relation to reading return addresses on letters:
There is an enormous difference between listening to the content of people’s phone calls and creating a database of telephone numbers used to make and receive calls and their duration. Creating the meta-database is a fairly debatable issue and should be the subject of hearings at which non-classified information can be discussed. I, for one, would like to hear the arguments for and against such a database before deciding whether on balance the benefits of the intrusion outweigh their obvious costs. For decades, the Supreme Court has permitted what are called mail watches, under which postal authorities have the power to maintain data based on the outsides of envelopes—the address to and from which the letter is sent. We no longer send letters. Now we use quicker and more efficient forms of communication. As technology changes, so must the law.