Debate Center: Public debates about secret actions
Illustration: Nate Beeler
By Alex Culpepper
A book comes out this week titled “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.” In this book, author Betty Medsger unfolds her research and interviews she had with a group who, in 1971, actually burglarized a Philadelphia FBI office and snuck away with hundreds of documents, and then mailed copies to newspaper offices. The operation exposed the FBI’s efforts to monitor and investigate people for anti-war activities, or as one FBI source admitted: to investigate college students “as if they were criminals.”
This old-school-style whistleblowing act is notable for at least three reasons: It revealed the FBI’s abuse of power, it led to FBI reform of intelligence gathering and it bears comparison with recent acts by Edward Snowden.
Snowden, of course, did his own mailing of sensitive information when he sent The Guardian evidence of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) harvesting of billions of records of people’s telephone and Internet activities and knowledge of the PRISM program, which gave the NSA access to servers from major Internet companies. Like the results from the 1971 FBI office heist, Snowden’s revelations highlighted more government abuse of power and generated a call for reform. Unlike the 1971 FBI office burglars who were never caught and until recently were never known, Snowden is hiding in plain sight in Russia because he faces some serious prison time if he is found guilty of violating the Espionage Act. He is also a defendant in the court of public opinion, where his acts have supporters who believe he should receive clemency and critics who believe he should be clapped in irons and suffer the full weight of the law.
Snowden’s supporters have hailed him a hero, a patriot, and sometimes both. For most of them, Snowden at least provided a tremendous service to America with his efforts to call attention to NSA activities and abuses. Because of that, they believe he should not face imprisonment from the same government he proved acted illegally on many counts. Supporters go on to claim Snowden’s actions were justified because the public had a right to know what was happening with private information behind the scenes. So far, two federal judges have stepped forward to call the NSA operation a violation of the Constitution.
Snowden’s opponents believe he went too far. Maybe blowing the whistle on NSA spying on Americans was necessary, they say, but he also exposed other operations that had little to do with the privacy of ordinary Americans. For that, some label him a traitor because his actions have weakened the NSA and other intelligence gathering efforts, leaving some U.S. Government secrets no longer secret. Add to that his fleeing to China and then Russia, and opponents call it an ugly chapter.
Snowden’s actions reveal the tense marriage between national security and civil rights. That’s where most of the debate seems to be heading, and plenty of the opposition is furious with him and want justice just as passionately as his supporters stand and applaud his efforts as courageous. Some people in the middle, though, don’t feel so much passion either way, and instead think Snowden’s actions have at least prompted a needed debate about NSA activities.
Reach DCP forum moderator Alex Culpepper at AlexCulpepper@DaytonCityPaper.com
Debate Forum Question of the Week:
Edward Snowden: Hero or villain?
Debate Left: To demonize Snowden is to hang yourself
By Marianne Stanley
It’s easy to cast aspersions at Edward Snowden, the NSA – should stand for National Spying Agency – contractor who exposed its massive, invasive and illegal surveillance program. All it takes is staying tuned to FOX, CNN or any of the corporate-owned television networks in this country to hear the incessant drum beat calling on us all to demonize him as a traitor who has helped our “enemies” and put our national security and our military men and women at risk. Hogwash.
“In the beginning of a change, the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned.” – Mark Twain
The latest government propaganda, obediently trotted out by Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Ranking Committee member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) of the once-respectable House Intelligence Committee, is Snowden’s documents have “tipped off U.S. enemies to spying methods used to defend the country and potentially jeopardized U.S. troops overseas.”
“Our destruction will be from the inattention of the people to the concerns of their government, from their carelessness and negligence. I fear they may place too implicit a confidence in their public servants and fail to properly scrutinize their conduct; that in this way they may be made the dupes of designing men, and become the instruments of their own undoing.” – Daniel Webster, 1837
Quoting the classified Pentagon report, they said the disclosures “have hurt U.S. allies who have been helping us with counterterrorism, cybercrime, trafficking and stopping weapons of mass destruction.” In just one sentence, that declaration manages to hit Americans in just about every fear we have – the best way to get people to do or to accept stupid stuff, as every good propagandist knows.
“Patrick Henry did not say, ‘Give me safety or give me death.’” – John Stossel, “20/20,” ABC, 2001
Neither Rogers nor Ruppersberger gave any specifics that support their naked assertion and it’s worth noting none of the Snowden documents say anything about military operations. Instead, they focus on what should have been a major news story – we have suddenly and completely lost our Constitutional right to privacy, and thus freedom, without any notification from a government operating in secret to snoop into all of our emails, phone calls and Internet searches.
This man Snowden, who has been so vilified in the press, was doing nothing more than putting his freedom and life on the line to protect and inform us in the absence of our once-objective media.
“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” – John Adams
Respected journalist and author Glenn Greenwald said the overwhelming majority of documents he received from Snowden dealt with NSA surveillance on the communications and online activities of American citizens.
“Every unjustifiable intrusion by the Government upon the privacy of the individual, whatever the means employed, must be deemed a violation of the Constitution.” – Justice Louis Brandeis
“As every journalist who has worked with Snowden has said, he was adamant that we very carefully review the materials he gave us and only publish what is in the public interest while withholding anything that would endanger the lives of innocent people or invade people’s privacy,” Greenwald said. “We have fully honored our agreement with him.”
“Make yourselves sheep and the wolves will eat you.” – Benjamin Franklin
This concern about hurting our allies is particularly amusing, since what the documents revealed is the NSA has been secretly and dishonorably spying on them, too. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was outraged when she discovered her phone calls had been monitored. The NSA is also spying on the leaders of allies Canada, Brazil, France, Mexico and Spain. This level of intrusive surveillance has been referred to as a “global dragnet,” scooping up Internet traffic and phone logs without regard for law, suspicion of any wrongdoing, danger to the U.S., privacy rights or ethics.
“All power in human hands is liable to be abused.” – James Madison
The sweep of this government spying program is huge, involving other agencies and complicit corporations. Our apparent indifference is baffling. FBI director James Comey said, “I see the government operating the way the founders intended. So I have trouble applying the whistleblower label to someone who basically disagrees with the way our government is structured and operates.” Someone needs to inform this top banana that someone who disagrees with illegal government actions is called a “citizen” and, more accurately, a “patriot,” who has put himself in the line of fire to protect the rest of us and to facilitate our “right to know.”
Snowden is a true patriot and the embodiment of Thomas Jefferson’s injunction to watch over the government or risk its tyranny.
“If some among you fear taking a stand because you are afraid of reprisals … recognize that you are just feeding the crocodile, hoping he’ll eat you last.” – Ronald Reagan
Want to send chills up your back while reading a good book? Now is the perfect time for us all to read “1984” by George Orwell. That book is now just a baby step away from today’s America.
Marianne Stanley is an attorney, college professor and former journalist who believes many of our nation’s ills could be cured if our children were taught critical thinking skills beginning at the elementary level and continuing through middle and high school. She can be reached at MarianneStanley@DaytonCityPaper.com.
Debate Right: Prosecute Edward Snowden as a traitor
By Dave Landon
There is little question in my mind Edward Snowden is a traitor. How can the theft of classified government information and allowing that information to be released in an effort to systematically undermine U.S. alliances around the world be seen as anything but treason? Most damaging has been that by disclosing the methods of collection of that information, Snowden aided U.S. adversaries.
Here’s a fact that many who are calling Snowden a hero refuse to accept as the truth: The world is still a dangerous place and there are forces present in the world who wish us harm. Our government has a vital interest in knowing what the bad guys are planning. That means our government has the right to keep secrets. Our safety depends on it.
The information from the documents released by Snowden has been published in a manner that has done great harm to U.S. alliances across the world. Here’s the issue: Snowden has decided to be the cop, prosecutor, judge and jury as to whether the programs run by the NSA are legal. No one has given that authority to him. While there are certainly issues regarding the NSA programs as they relate to the overreach in spying on American citizens, “computer boy” Snowden has gone way beyond whistleblowing on that issue. Only a small percentage of the information that Snowden has released relates to the issue of spying on Americans. The bulk of the information that has been released deals with the efforts of the U.S. government and its allies to run programs aimed at uncovering terrorist activities around the world. That is an activity in which most Americans want our government involved. Snowden’s activity has made that important, life-saving mission much more difficult.
The very issue of data mining by the NSA has now been heard and decided by two federal district courts. In early December, the Federal District Court in the District of Columbia found the bulk collection of American telephone metadata likely violates the Constitution of the United States. Judge Richard J. Leon went on to say, “Surely, that such a program infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.”
However, it was only a couple of weeks later when a second federal district court issued a ruling upholding the government program of data mining. On Dec. 28, 2013, Judge William Pauley dismissed a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleging the NSA’s phone records program was unconstitutional. The judge dismissed the argument by the ACLU regarding the claim the NSA was exceeding the bounds of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. In his decision, Judge Pauley wrote the U.S. government’s global telephone data-gathering system is needed to thwart potential terrorist attacks, and further it can only work if everyone’s calls are swept in. The judge also concluded the telephone data being swept up by NSA did not belong to telephone users, but to the telephone companies. The judge concluded when the NSA obtains such data from the telephone companies, and then probes that information to find links between callers and potential terrorists, this further use of the data was not a search under the Fourth Amendment.
Here we have two federal courts reaching diametrically opposite decisions as to the constitutionality of the NSA program. The issue will eventually be decided by the Supreme Court, as appeals by both sides are presently underway. My point here is not to argue as to which court has the more soundly-reasoned decision. The point is there are sound arguments on both sides of the issue and they need to be heard and decided by the courts … and not arbitrarily decided by one weird guy on an ego trip because he believes himself to be the smartest guy in the room.
Maybe the NSA has overstepped. Jim Sensenbrenner, author of the Patriot Act, believes the NSA has now gone beyond the scope of the original act. Sensenbrenner submitted a proposal in October called the “USA Freedom Act,” which would end the bulk collection of Americans’ metadata and reform the FISA court. So let’s have that debate. But as we’re having the debate, is it necessary to share every national secret we have with the rest of the world?
After just a few short years of working in national security, most recently as a contract worker, Edward Snowden has decided he knows best for the rest of us. Snowden argues he turned the information over to the news media and allowed them to make the decisions as to what would be released. That is one lame and gutless argument. Society has not appointed journalists or newspaper editors to decide these matters, nor are they qualified to do so. Newspapers are trying to sell newspapers. Did he really expect them to hold back on the release of sensitive information?
If Snowden truly believes in his cause as a “whistleblower extraordinaire,” why did he take flight to hide out with America’s enemies? Why not stand his ground and battle the government’s allegations of criminal behavior here on American soil. Could the answer be that he knows what he has done is wrong? That rather than helping his county as his supporters claim, he has betrayed her? American lives may be the price we pay for his whistleblowing gallantry. Don’t celebrate this man. Prosecute him.
David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at