Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Edward Snowden

The debate surrounding Edward Snowden and his release of protected information from the NSA is one worth having.  Pundits on both right and left think he's a hero.  Pundits on both right and left think he is something far less.

But the fundamental question is -- Who decides what we get to see?

Is it Edward Snowden?  Bradley Manning perhaps?  Some other rogue government contractor turned media darling?  Or the shadowy halls of the NSA and CIA?

That decision is made somewhere, oftentimes for arbitrary reasons.  As you may presume, the preference is to err on the side of redaction/classification.  Once something is "out", it cannot be pulled back in (although there is an unbelievably archaic [almost ceremonial] procedure for recalling unintentionally released protected material).

What happens when our basic understanding of that fuzzy boundary between the "gubment" and "us" is in the balance?  We go about our day-to-day, presuming the government is "there" and we are "here", operating with some comfort in that distance.  If the government crosses that line, through some discrete provision in law or regulation passed under the distress of attack, should we be alerted?  Who decides?

And how about the Constitution?  If Congress and the Executive have legislated themselves out of the jurisdiction of the Courts (happens more often than you may want to know - particularly when it comes to "national security", which is exactly the kind of circumstance that is exploited in times of tyranny), what then?  Isn't knowledge the last line of defense for individual liberty?  If my rights to due process and the protection against unreasonable search and seizure are being breached, and there is nothing anyone can do about it, aren't I at least entitled to the knowledge that it is happening?  And if so, who decides?

The most intriguing thing about this debate is that it is seemingly one of absolutes.  Either Snowden is a law-breaking self-righteous prig making ungoverned decisions about what is right and wrong, to be punished to the full extent of the law OR he is a liberator of sorts, standing up against the size, force, and reach of the United States Government, and this behavior should be encouraged, thereby making vulnerable all national secrets at all times.  Any middle ground is a philosophical minefield. 

But, Tom, transparency!  Doesn't this invoke transparency in a way?  Similar to how gun control debates always devolve to the possession of a bazooka or a Sherman Tank, don't we need to allow the province of "national secrets" in our discussions of transparency.  Surely, the most fervent advocates for transparency (that vague and fickle god) would agree that national secrets, involving in some respect about 20% of all federal expenditures, should be protected from disclosure.  So, from there, we agree that transparency is a flexible term that should only be invoked with some purpose.  "Transparency is necessary in this circumstance because..."  Sure, it is many more words than just "Transparency!", but the effect is a more persuasive sentence.

What do I think about Mr. Snowden?  I think he is someone that did not have this discussion with himself, but similarly one who thought he was doing the right thing; someone who could not stop himself from releasing what he released.  That is the personal dynamic of an abstract discussion.  For that, I'm not willing or interested in attacking him as a person.  Nor am I all that interested in defending him.  This is a dangerous area of policy, law, and security that does not allow much room for error.  The sad thing is that all we can say for certain is that Mr. Snowden can never come home again.

That's all for today.  Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!  Rock on.