A whistleblower has exposed the National Security Administration's warrantless spying on millions of ordinary Americans, and conservatives are divided in their reactions. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) are calling former NSA contractor Edward Snowden a traitor. This may be the only time I ever disagree with them.
Snowden revealed that judges are approving warrants allowing the government to obtain "inadvertently acquired" information without a search warrant. This includes the contents of emails and listening in on phone conversations. It is ostensibly authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
This is terrifying when you consider how easy it could be for the government to target someone, then make it look like they "inadvertently acquired" their confidential information after poring through gobs of information. The government is permitted to retain the information for up to five years. As an attorney who formerly handled public records requests for the government, I assure you it is easy to retain records for longer than that without anyone noticing. Snowden said that he had access to obtain this information from virtually anyone with a personal email address.
This administration cannot be trusted not to abuse its authority and target political enemies. The government has already been caught using the IRS to target conservatives, so it should not be trusted with wide access to the average American's personal information without a warrant. As someone who has been targeted by a fishing expedition – the State Bar of Arizona demanded to know everything I had ever blogged, including anonymously, over a period of five years - I greatly fear giving the government the ability to conduct fishing expeditions that violate the Fourth Amendment. Because technology has become so vast, and the laws have become so vague - many no longer require intent - one civil liberties attorney argues that it can easily be shown that the average American commits three felonies a day. Put this all together and it becomes very easy for the government to target anyone.
Doug Hagmann, a columnist with Canada Free Press, was told by an anonymous employee at the Department of Homeland Security that the Obama administration is already spying on and targeting conservative reporters, bloggers and whistleblowers. "If you are a website owner with a brisk readership and a conservative bent, you're on that list." The Obama administration will claim any surveillance is related to terrorism, "but it's a political dissident list, not an enemy threat list."
The advance of technology has given the government many new ways to monitor our activities. Yet the Founding Fathers drafted the Fourth Amendment in order to protect us from the government spying on us in our homes. The NSA surveillance allows the government to monitor what we are doing on our computers inside our homes.
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who was appalled by the surveillance, contrasts the privacy of mailing letters through the Post Office with today's modern email: there is no similar expectation of privacy with email, even though it is just a modern day version of a letter. He lamented how excessive government monitoring of people is what we used to abhor about communist Russia.
The government is essentially giving itself broad powers to spy on us, and justifying it with the vague excuse of combating terrorism. Snowden advises investigative journalists, "How many terrorist attacks were prevented SOLELY by information derived from this suspicionless surveillance that could not be gained via any other source?"
Snowden leaked the story to the UK Guardian because none of the big newspapers in the U.S. had the guts to break such an incriminating story against the Obama administration. Snowden said he released evidence of the surveillance because he was tired of seeing "lies from senior officials to Congress." Now Snowden has fled to Hong Kong, and the Obama administration is trying to track him down and try him for being a traitor.
Contrast this with how the Obama administration has bent over backwards transferring terrorists to U.S. courts where they will receive the full panoply of constitutional rights. Yet when it comes to Snowden, merely a whistleblower, the government is already declaring him guilty of treason, filing a criminal complaint against him on Friday. Snowden told the UK Guardian in an interview that he no longer stands a chance at a fair trial in the U.S.
Two U.S. senators, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), both members of the Senate intelligence committee, have asked the administration how many Americans were subjected to this surveillance, but the administration refuses to provide the information, unbelievably asserting it doesn't have it. Other members of the House and Senate, on both sides of the aisle, are introducing bills that would declassify the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions that authorized these programs. This will reveal how the court interpreted the Patriot Act so broadly as to justify the surveillance.
Some on the right are concerned that Edward Snowden has revealed classified information that could damage our security efforts. But what has been damaged exactly? Snowden has not revealed any U.S. operations against legitimate military targets. Let's not forget what happened to liberal journalist Geraldo Rivera when he actually did reveal U.S. troop movements in Iraq – he wasn't even prosecuted. Snowden merely "pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses."
There probably wasn't anything else he could do to stop the government surveillance – it is highly unlikely that reporting it to another government agency would have accomplished anything but getting him fired.
The Patriot Act was fraught with potential civil liberties violations when it was first passed. But most of them were addressed and the law was changed. Now it appears another loophole has been found in it that must be changed to protect our Fourth Amendment right. The government should not be able to casually access the personal information of Americans it has no reason to suspect are involved with crime or terrorism.
What Snowden has done can be distinguished from the actions of Pfc. Bradley Manning. Manning released videos and documents relating to our military fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as a video of an American helicopter firing on a group of men in Baghdad, which many believe provoked terrorists. Manning revealed the military's combat role in fighting terrorism, whereas Snowden revealed massive spying on average Americans, two very different things. Snowden contributed $500 to Ron Paul's presidential campaign in 2012, clearly no American-hating lefty.
If Snowden is really a traitor, then why is Obama now saying things need to change? Obama said in an interview on the PBS Charlie Rose show PBS last week, "We're going to have to find ways where the public has an assurance that there are checks and balances in place, that they have enough information about how we operate that they know their phone calls aren't being listened to, their text messages aren't being monitored, their e-mails are not being read by some Big Brother somewhere." Obama formed a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board and met with it last week to address this. Also as a result of Snowden's exposure, Google and Facebook are opening up about what information they disclose to the U.S. government.
If this surveillance is not curtailed, conservative activists should seriously consider switching to encrypted email. I have a feeling the government is not really going to stop this. And just like Obama's denial that ordinary Americans' phone calls were being listened in on, Obama will deny that surveillance is increasing.