Jun 18, 2013

Whistleblower or Traitor? The Jury’s Still Out

     Edward Snowden is a 29-year old native of North Carolina.  He never completed high school, and never went to college, and is unmarried.  He has attained a GED and after a being discharged from the military following a training accident in the early 2000’s, found work as a security guard at the National Security Agency (NSA).  He was later hired at the CIA to work on information technology security.  Most recently he has been working as a contractor with the firm Booz Allen Hamilton, also on information technology matters. 

Two weeks ago it was revealed by The Guardian newspaper that Mr. Snowden was the source of the leak that exposed the NSA’s secret surveillance program.  A program whereby the NSA allegedly tapped into the central servers of nine leading US Internet companies (including Yahoo, Google and Facebook) to monitor Americans’ emails and other digital correspondence.  Mr. Snowden copied several top secret documents that he had access to through his work at the private company hired by the NSA to do national security work.  He then abruptly left his home in Hawaii and flew to Hong Kong because it is reported he was looking for a place that had favorable laws against extradition to the US.

After his identity was revealed a debate emerged over whether Edward Snowden was a whistleblower or a traitor.  Some have declared him a hero, calling his actions principled and brave.  Others, the number of which actually took me by surprise, have taken issue with the young man’s actions.  David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column last week articulating that side of the argument.   

There are a few aspects of this story that concern me.  The fact that the NSA has taken to recording and surveilling our communications; the fact that the NSA is outsourcing sensitive intelligence gathering work to private firms; and the fact that this 29 year old took it upon himself to expose these secrets without exhausting any other options first.

Did he raise concerns with superiors?  Many believe that would have gotten him nowhere.  I can understand that.  But there quite a few members of Congress who have been looking into issues such as these for years.  Members who may have carried Mr. Snowden’s cause or, if not, may have at least guided his decision making.  Instead Mr. Snowden took the most dramatic route available to him: he cut all ties and flew to Hong Kong where he is holed up in a hotel room.  The world is wondering what will happen next. 

I, as I suspect many Americans are, am conflicted about this story.  I believe in transparency in government.  But I do not believe 100% transparency in government is realistic (for this nation or any nation for that matter).  I admire whistleblowers.  But I also admire loyalty.  There is great value to a society in institutional trust and a respect for hierarchy.  I also believe it is important to exhaust proper channels first before turning to the press and exposing any controversial issues in such a public way. 

Mr. Snowden’s actions brought this program out of the shadows.  And it has engaged the country in an important national debate: The debate over just how much liberty countries (this one as well as others) are willing to sacrifice in the name of security.  But he has also exposed many vital facts about programs and procedures that may have proven vital to keeping people safe. 

Years from now we may look back on Mr. Snowden’s actions and decide that he performed a national service in making us aware of government actions that threaten our identity as a free society.  Or we may decide that Mr. Snowden perhaps watched one too many spy thrillers and fancied himself a hero, when in reality he may have overreacted, weakened our intelligence agencies, and by extension weakened the nation.  We may decide that exposing security practices and operations was price worth being paid to ensure transparency in our government and personal freedom.  Or we may decide that in this particular case it was not. 

It will take years, if not longer, for us to make that determination.  Is Mr. Snowden a hero or a traitor?  I believe it is simply too early to say.