An edited copy of this piece was published in the June 24 edition of the Shenzhen Daily.
By now most everyone is familiar with the name Edward Snowden. He is the U.S. government employee who spilled the beans about secret government surveillance programs to a British newspaper then fled to Hong Kong.
There two basic parts of the spying. One is the National Security Agency’s (NSA) programs to monitor virtually all electronic communications in America.
The second part is of the spying is aimed at overseas communications, including Hong Kong and China. The entire spy network goes under the acronym PRISM.
According to Snowden Chinese military, businesses, and universities were targeted.
The NSA spying grew out of the Patriot Act which was passed after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Supposedly it was to be used to prevent a similar attack. Since there hasn’t been another major event, it is possible it has been successful. But since everything is done is secret, the public will never know.
Predictably those on the left who hated the Patriot Act while Bush was president, now find it more acceptable under Obama, even though Obama’s reauthorization of the Act in 2011 strengthened its spying mandate.
The U.S. has often claimed that Chinese hackers are attacking U.S. institutions. China has always denied it, but recently an exact building was identified as a source of much hacking.
It seems the eavesdropping scandal grows every day. A few days ago it was revealed the recent G8 meeting was spied on by the British government.
Then Snowden revealed that NSA retained its captured communications much longer than it claimed. Every day brings new revelations about the number of servers involved, and the types of data being collected grows larger.
The legality of PRISM is in dispute. The government says it is legal. Everyone involved, including Obama, are absolutely unrepentant for it. It looks like it will be with us forever.
The U.S. constitution barely mentions the bureaucracy, and NSA is a bureaucracy. It was created by the government and follows the dictates of the government. It’s easy enough to follow the letter of the law when you’re the one writing it.
However legality does not translate into morality.
Secretly listening to the conversation of others or reading their mail is universally considered immoral. PRISM is the government version of reading the mail of others.
Many of us can not imagine the government spying on its own people. We were brought up believing things like that only went on in totalitarian countries like the USSR or East Germany.
The NSA programs were carried out in secret. The citizens who are being monitored had no say-so about it. There was no public debate.
America is supposed to be the land of freedom. Leaks of classified information happen often. Usually there are no consequences for the leaker. For some reason Snowden felt the need to flee the country after his leaks were made public. This says much about the state of freedom in America today.
One must question the value of the NSA data mining. We are told it was to help protect us from terrorism. Yet they failed to detect the Boston bombers. They were fairly open about their radicalization, and the Russian government fingered them. Still nothing was done. The massive date grab wasn’t used to monitor them.
Just as important, now that other countries have discovered the U.S. is monitoring their communications it may have an adverse reaction in diplomacy, mutual cooperation, and trade.
Most people agree that there are certain things that a government must keep secret, including spying activities on other countries. This has a legitimate national security value.
But spying on its citizens emails, credit card transactions, phone calls, and even photographs is not a legitimate government function. The argument is made that if one has nothing to hide, there should be no reason to oppose it. This of course is specious. A citizen has the right and expectation of privacy.
Many of Snowden’s detractors have taken to attacking him personally, knowing that the spying doesn’t sit well with most Americans. They have attacked his education and motives for releasing he information. Some have even implied he is in the employ of China.
So is Snowden a hero or a traitor? The answer is as complicated as the facts that are involved. He shouldn’t have released info about government spying techniques. It compromised our national security and damaged relations between countries. That was traitorous.
But his release of information on NSA spying on all electronic communications by all Americans was something we should know about. For making that known Snowden is a hero.