Like most everyone else interested in government overreach and like literally everyone working directly with the federal government I have been watching the story about the NSA data collection effort and the “whistleblower” Edward Snowden with much interest. I’ve considered the situation carefully and from a perspective on both sides of this equation. I believe I’m on solid ground when I say that anyone who does will form an opinion on both the NSA’s and Snowden’s behavior. It’s taken a while to come to the position I have precisely because I’ve had to consider both sides realistically.
Now, before I proceed, there’s a few notification items that have to be taken care of.
- No, I have not actually seen nor read any of the documentation leaked by Snowden. Everything I know about those documents and the information contained has been obtained by reading public news accounts on a variety of news services.
- No, I will not actually view those documents until such time as the federal government officially declassifies them or I am read into the program as someone with a need to know. (Which ain’t likely, by the way, so I’ll be waiting for them to be declassified like everyone else.)
- I will officially go on record that I do not work for the NSA nor am I working on any project for any agency or organization that has me in direct contact with the NSA. (And if any of them are working in direct contact with the NSA, they’ve made sure not to tell me.)
OK, that’s out of the way. With all of that in mind I have to say, after careful consideration, that Edward Snowden stepped over the line of appropriate behavior, far exceeding what can realistically be called “whistleblowing,” and has now pretty clearly engaged in actual (albeit possibly inadvertent) espionage.
There are clearly defined, accepted avenues for a government employee to bring what he believes is government malfeasance to light. If someone in that position honestly believes they are witnessing government overreach or illegal behavior and that their command chain is compromised, the acceptable method is to bring the information to a duly elected representative of the people, a.k.a. Congress. Snowden cannot seriously have believed that someone like Senator Paul Ryan or Rand Paul or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would have listened to his story about the NSA vacuuming up call data on every American, using that data as part of a terrorism investigation when the targeted people were, and are, not even remotely considered to be involved in terrorism and thought they would have buried it. There is no chance that Rand Paul would have sat on this and simply called the NSA cops to have Snowden “rendered” someplace to disappear. And those 4 aren’t the only ones, there were plenty of people in the House. The law on whistleblowing are clear that someone coming forward in this manner are legally untouchable.
But Snowden didn’t even make an attempt to do that. He decided to go talk to a reporter. Now, you can’t blame the reporter, not at all, nor the publication that reporter works for. And once the information was in their hands, there’s absolutely no obligation on their part to keep it quiet on the Administration’s behalf. But I can blame Snowden. He didn’t do this because he feared for our democracy nor because his personal honor demanded it. He went this route – and then came forward that he had been the one who leaked it – because he was looking for a better deal for himself. He was looking for the benefits of fame. How do I know that? Because his next move was to stop talking about how the NSA was targeting Americans – those are friendlies by default, by the way – and started talking about how and where American intelligence services were collecting data on foreign powers. The former is rightly viewed as a threat to Americans’ freedoms and an overreach of government assisted by badly-framed law while the latter is exposing the operations of government intelligence offices who are doing their jobs. He spoke of the NSA collecting Americans’ call records to highlight to the American public that their government was doing something that we, in the majority, disapprove of. He moved to expose a threat to our republic. He spoke of the NSA hacking the Chinese to get the Chinese interested in offering him a job.
That he has now decided to take a trip to Russia where Vladmir Putin has lately shown himself to be opposed to US interests confirms that his concern is not and was not for the American people. He was man entrusted with classified information on our government’s operations who has decided to break his oath and give that information over to foreign powers. That’s not a whistleblower. That’s a spy. That’s espionage. And the damn shame of it is that that fact will forever overshadow any good will or intent he may have at one time possessed. You could have made the argument that he was a whistleblower who, not trusting any part of the federal government, was forced to go to the media right up to the moment that he told the Chinese that the US was hacking them just like the Chinese are hacking us. That information provision to a foreign power does nothing to secure Americans’ liberties. It does not fall into the scope of informing the American people of an attack on their civil rights. It’s an offer of information to a foreign government that he swore to keep secret.
I haven’t addressed in any significant way the propriety of the NSA’s call data collection on Americans and the reason not is because that’s completely irrelevant to Snowden’s espionage. I’ll get around to writing about that separately but Snowden’s actions do not deserve the kind of high praise and sanctification it’s getting. He’s crossed the line and he should answer for that crime.