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ROBINSON: We should thank Edward Snowden

Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson

WASHINGTON — Edward Snowden’s renegade decision to reveal the jaw-dropping scope of the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance is being vindicated — even as Snowden himself is being vilified.

Intelligence officials in the Obama administration and their allies on Capitol Hill paint the fugitive analyst as nothing but a traitor who wants to harm the United States. Many of those same officials grudgingly acknowledge, however, that public debate about the NSA’s domestic snooping is now unavoidable.

This would be impossible if Snowden — or someone like him — hadn’t spilled the beans. We wouldn’t know that the NSA is keeping a database of all our phone calls. We wouldn’t know that the government gets the authority to keep track of our private communications — even if we are not suspected of terrorist activity or associations — from secret judicial orders issued by a secret court based on secret interpretations of the law.

Snowden, of course, is hardly receiving the thanks of a grateful nation. He has spent the last five weeks trapped in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo Airport outside Moscow. Russian officials, who won’t send him home for prosecution, wish he would move along. But he fears that if he takes off for one of the South American countries that have offered asylum, he risks being intercepted en route and extradited. It’s a tough situation, and time is not on his side.

You can cheer Snowden’s predicament or you can bemoan it. But even some of the NSA’s fiercest defenders have admitted, if not in so many words, that Snowden performed a valuable public service.

Less than two weeks ago, the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a public statement to announce that the secret Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court has renewed the government’s authority to collect “metadata” about our phone calls. This was being disclosed “in light of the significant and continuing public interest in the … collection program.”

Isn’t that rich? If the spooks had their way, there would be no “continuing public interest” in the program. We wouldn’t know it exists.

The new position espoused by President Obama and those who kept the NSA’s domestic surveillance a deep, dark secret is that of course we should have a wide-ranging national debate about balancing the imperatives of privacy and security. But they don’t mean it.

I know this because when an actual debate erupted in Congress last week, the intelligence cognoscenti freaked out.

An attempt to cut off funding for the NSA’s collection of phone data, sponsored by an unlikely pair of allies in the House — Justin Amash, a conservative Republican, and John Conyers, a liberal Democrat, both from Michigan — suffered a surprisingly narrow defeat, 217-205. The measure was denounced by the White House and the congressional leadership of both parties, yet it received bipartisan support from 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats.

The Amash-Conyers amendment was in no danger of becoming law — the Senate would have killed it and, if all else failed, President Obama would have vetoed it. But it put the intelligence establishment on notice: The spooks don’t decide how far is too far. We do.

A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that three out of four Americans believe the vacuum-cleaner collection of phone call data by the NSA intrudes on our privacy rights. At the same time, nearly three-fifths of those surveyed said it was “more important right now” to investigate possible terrorist threats than to respect privacy. A contradiction, perhaps? Not necessarily.

It is possible to endorse sweeping and intrusive measures in the course of a specific investigation but reject those same measures as part of a fishing expedition. At the heart of the Fourth Amendment is the concept that a search must be justified by suspicion. Yet how many of those whose phone call information is being logged are suspected of being terrorists? One in a million?

Equally antithetical to the idea of a free society, in my view, is the government’s position that we are not even permitted to know how the secret intelligence court interprets our laws and the Constitution. The order that Snowden leaked — compelling a Verizon unit to cough up data on the phone calls it handled — was one of only a few to come to light in the court’s three decades of existence. Now there are voices calling for all the court’s rulings to be released.

We’re talking about these issues. You can wish Edward Snowden well or wish him a lifetime in prison. Either way, you should thank him.

Eugene Robinson is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. Email him at eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

Comments

kevin 1 year, 3 months ago

I thank Snowden and wish him luck. If it weren't for someone like him, the Obama administration would keep the transparent curtain up on all of us for as long as he can. If you don't have a national security reason for spying on someone, you don't, period. I wish more would expose our government. The past 4 years have been the worse in this country's history. As for embarrassment, this country has been embarrassed since 2008 and counting. As for Chambliss, just because you are quitting, you don't need to embarrass the rest of the GOP and voting for Obama and his stupid policies. Were you waiting until you quit to show your Democratic side?

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Why_not 1 year, 3 months ago

In case you didn't know, the previous president enacted these procedures and during his administration warrants weren't needed for anything.

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FordGalaxy 1 year, 3 months ago

While it's fun to blame Obama or Bush, simply blaming someone will not clean this mess up. Obama touted that he would run the most transparent administration in history. What we didn't realize, was the he meant he was going to make the information about the American people as transparent to the govenrment as possible.


It's funny that we praise "whistleblowers" who denounce corporations, but the moment someone does it to the government, we try to arrest them for treason.


I really wish the people who would trade their freedom for security would also sign a pledge not to vote ever again. Benjamin Franklin is quoted (and I paraphrase) as saying that anyone who would surrender fundamental liberty for temporary security deserves neither. The NSA is tracking our phone calls, our purchases, our web activity. The police are logging a database of where license plates are read and when, then keeping the data for 5 years. All of this sounds perfectly justifiable right?

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notblind 1 year, 3 months ago

"All of this sounds perfectly justifiable right?"

Why_not ?????

Oh I am a funny guy hhahahhahhaahhahahaaa

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Why_not 1 year, 3 months ago

As a matter of fact I laugh every time I read one of your posts.

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