Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Guest Submission: The Problem with Today's Digital Freedom Fighters

Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, and an endless list of digital vigilantes have come to dominate the news as of late. They profess to be righting wrong by violating laws—laws which should not exist in a free and just society. Manning released video of American helicopters killing Iraqi civilians and Snowden revealed what many Americans have long feared – that the United States government was capable of and is spying on the American people. These two men have quickly become heroes to some and villains to others. Without question the United States has entered into a precarious era of balancing the government need to protect its citizens while maintaining secrets from foreign and domestic threats. The problem is that security policy should be set through the democratic process and not by high-minded vigilantes who would destroy the nation’s defense capabilities while trying to allegedly protect individual liberty.

Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning violated oaths and agreements made with the people of the United States by releasing secret information. They state that not to do so would have been an abdication of a greater responsibility they had to their fellow citizens and “humanity.” Both believe they had witnessed something illicit and unjust and took it upon themselves to correct this wrong by revealing documents considered classified, as they were sensitive to the National Security of the American people. These are the facts of the case for which there is no dispute. The question that needs to be asked is this: does an individual American have a right to violate laws meant to protect national security in the name of what they personally consider to be, national security?

While the stories of Snowden and Manning do indicate a government whose obsession with maintaining its own secrecy while denying privacy to others, there is a troubling pattern emerging--that of technologically adept altruists who feel it is their duty to reveal what they believe to be government and private malfeasance. Snowden states that he leaked the documents because the “public needs to decide whether these programs are right or wrong.”[1]

Snowden is correct that the extent of the spying on American citizens was “unknown,” but the suggestion that there was no oversight is incorrect. Information on all of these programs was readily available to inquisitive members of Congress, federal courts, and the Executive branch. Furthermore, American citizens have had 12 years since the implementation of the Patriot Act to elect individuals to Congress and the presidency to restrict the government’s broad powers – knowing for the most part what they were. Except for Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky, most of the Post 9-11 officials have been lukewarm on civil liberties. The only person who comes out of this scandal looking like a “liar,” who has hidden an aspect of his policy beliefs from the American people is President Obama – but what else is new?

While President Obama campaigned on the promise of ending surveillance programs, he has since decided it was valuable in whatever he calls “the war on terror.” (I think it is now called: “Our On-Going Gentlemanly Row on Terror”) The revelation that President Obama, like the president before him, oversees a branch of government that has the ability to spy on every single American should have come as a shock to no one. This should only come as a lesson to Democrats that their president is just as lousy at guarding against excesses as the Republicans. While it has been entertaining to see President Obama’s hypocrisy brought to light and to watch Congressmen and Senators act like Captain Renault of Casablanca, (“I am shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on here!”) nothing has or will come of this save embarrassing the United States and exposing an expensive and formerly secret weapon. The result will be, just as every Liberty loving American fears, a spying mechanism that is countered by our enemies (As indicated by this recent story from Wired magazine) and whose only remaining target is the everyday citizen. All Edward Snowden has done is to waste a considerable amount of taxpayer dollars and instigate the NSA to make the program more robust and more secret at great expense.  

It is fair to say that Snowden’s actions have faint similarities with those of whistle-blowers, who generally are protected from prosecution for bringing illegal dealings to the proper authorities. This is not what Snowden did. Instead of bringing what he believed to be a severe violation of both the separation of powers and the rights of American citizens to the attention of a Congressman, an attorney, or court’s officer, he released American intelligence secrets to the foreign press. He also took more information on intelligence operations with him to Hong Kong and then Russia, continuing to discharge more secret information on the way that was not directly pertinent to the privacy of American citizens and pertained directly to foreign surveillance methods used on the Europeans, Chinese, and Russians. The first action may be considered an attempt on the part of a conscientious citizen to roll back the national security state and protect individual liberties, but the subsequent releases qualify as blatant espionage.

The same goes for Bradley Manning who admittedly released embarrassing State Department secret cables--many of which he did not even bother to read--because he resented how the United States government treated gays like himself. Manning’s petty act of revenge was both a violation of his sworn oath as a United States service member and another blatant act of espionage against the United States. That he stole and published random classified information to the “World” and not to any particular country does not make his action any different than any other spy working for a foreign nation.[2]

Is Edward Snowden really concerned with the “liberties” of individuals while aiding foreign governments like China who steal from American companies and wage a cyber war against the United States? Perhaps he believes the Russian government, that imprisons domestic protestors and murders foreign dissidents, has secrets worth protecting? This all smacks of a person with a misguided savior complex who believes that the path to reform is embarrassing the United States on the world stage and hoping for revolution. The reasoning and arguments put forth by both of these men are incredibly similar to those of the lone Anarchist who assassinated William McKinley, Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz believed that McKinley had violated American principles in his war on the revolutionaries in the Philippines and represented an expansion of imperialism. He shot McKinley believing that murdering a “tyrant” would encourage an Anarchist uprising. Czolgosz never bothered to contemplate the idea that in a democratic country revolutions are not waged with bullets, but with ballots.

What Czolgosz, Manning and Snowden all seem to have forgotten is that the United States relies on elections, courts, and checks and balances to right the wayward ship. Every one of these individuals could have voted, participated in, and advocated during one of many elections if they wanted pro-privacy, anti-war candidates. This would have allowed them to maintain the oaths and agreements they made to protect the United States and its secrets. Being part of the intelligence structure, they would have had the knowledge base to know where the real pitfalls and incursions were and pursued legislative and democratic methods to achieve the goal of resolving them. Instead they aspired to be treated like martyrs of the hypocritical “Great Satan,” by our enemies, all the while fixing nothing.

While I believe that Snowden and Manning are criminals who unapologetically violated their oaths - and Manning’s court martial happens to agree with me – that does not mean that I discount the need for government whistleblower reform. President Obama has been waging a war on leakers, so long as said leaks do not make him look good like those that revealed foiled Al’Queada plots in Yemen. His ability to wield the bureaucratic and access nightmare that is classified materials to hide his own failings (See: Benghazi) and to use laws associated with classified materials to punish legitimate criticisms of his policy failings presents a real threat to the separation of powers, national security, and the liberties of individual Americans.

Do I want government spying on American citizens to end? Of course I do. The excesses of the Patriot Act were apparent to most Americans the day someone finally sat down to read it. What is the value of knowing what books people are reading? After 9-11 that only book that seemed pertinent to that particular attack was the Qur’Ran. The only person who might benefit from producing a report of books American citizens are buying is the guy who sells the government its paper. If there is a source of corruption, I always assume it is that guy.

Should we being having this discussion? Definitely. Should Edward Snowden get a pass because the public agrees with his outrage? Of course not. We are a nation of laws. If you disagree with said laws you still have some options denied to most of the rest of humanity: work to change them, emigrate, or revolt.  

Should there be legislation to protect government whistleblowers that reveal troubling Top Secret information to Congressmen and Senators so they can make informed decisions? Yes. But should Snowden and Manning be treated like heroes for releasing sensitive information for the “sake of the world?” No. Should they be prosecuted for violating the trust given to them by the American people? Yes. Will we continue to see more people like Snowden and Manning who feel alienated by a political system where elections steer policy and not vigilantism? Definitely. 

The current battle for electronic privacy is an important fight, if not the most important, being waged by the State and those who seek to limit its power. The United States government, has long made a habit of listening in on conversations, telegraphs, phone calls, and Internet messages of its citizens. The extent to which this should be permitted in a republic that guarantees a reasonable right to privacy is a delicate balance between elected officials, law enforcement, voters, and the courts. It is not an area that should be settled by megalomaniacal altruists who play God with computer code and think it entitles them to play God with America’s national security and justice systems.

-- Daniel P. Roberts

[1] Barbara Starr, Man Behind NSA Leaks says he did it to safe guard privacy, liberty, last modified June 23, 2013,
[2] Ali Mohsin, Bradley Manning justifies his actions by a desire to spark a debate, February 28, 2013,