To some, former CIA and National Security Administration (NSA) employee Edward Snowden is seen as a classic whistleblower, who divulged government secrets that contradict the U.S. Constitution and its 4th amendment. Many who espouse his view—on both the left and right—have applauded his courage and regard him as a hero.
To others—especially within the U.S. political class—he is now considered a charged felon, who has willingly pursued a plan to embarrass his government, and in so doing, has breached matters of national security and made the United States less safe. His weekend flight from Hong Kong to Russia may lead some to go as far as to label him a “traitor”.
Which is it—hero, felon or traitor? It is too early to answer this. But the longer the situation drags on, the more damage it will inflict on the reputation of the United States on the world stage.
The 4th amendment of the U.S. Constitution sets guidelines to protect individual privacy. Even in matters of national security, we are told that due process must be followed. NSA programs, including the ones covering telephone records as well as internet activity that Snowden denounced, must be subjected to safeguards that protect the right to privacy. President Barack Obama has since justified these NSA programs as the necessary balance between privacy and security in this post-9-11 world. While his administration has been careful in its choice of vocabulary, it has decided to charge Snowden with contravening the Espionage Act.
The spectacle of the strongest power on earth chasing Snowden around the globe is not reassuring to those who believe in the value of U.S. diplomacy, U.S. intelligence capacity or U.S. military might. The ease with which Snowden accessed sensitive material and subjected his government to this embarrassing game of “cat and mouse” is also not comforting to those who count on U.S. intelligence forces to keep them safe.
Clearly, at the outset, the initial effect of Snowden’s action was to spark a legitimate debate about privacy, security and the importance of the 4th amendment. Libertarian politicians like Rand Paul did not condemn Snowden outright. Snowden also has significant support in progressive circles.
Others, like influential Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein and Republican Congressman Mike Rogers—normally on opposite sides, argued that maintaining national security and keeping America safe requires measures that could affect some privacy issues. Together, however, they have vehemently condemned Snowden’s actions .The flight to Russia may have deviated what was becoming a necessary debate in a democracy from matters of substance to theatrics.
Snowden detractors refer to another famous whistleblower incident: that of Daniel Ellsberg and the release of the Pentagon papers, which gradually led to the questioning of the Vietnam War. Unlike Snowden, they argue, Ellsberg stayed in the U.S. and faced the justice system. In contrast, Snowden’s behavior, which has been backed by some advocacy journalists such as Glen Greenwald of The Guardian and Wikileaks, seems set on evading the U.S. justice system. The polemics around Snowden’s whereabouts seem to confuse the nature of the conversation America should be having at this time in its history.
In the meantime, The United States’ image is not improving around the world. Its government seems hesitant and vulnerable. The ‘soft power’ strengths of the U.S. are being questioned. Countries such as China and Russia, with poor human rights records, are openly defying the wishes of the world’s oldest and strongest democracy, and its rule of law. At the end of the day, the privacy versus security debate is rapidly becoming a secondary issue, and this entire episode is turning into a zero-sum game for the United States where no individual or principle wins the day. And this may well be the unintended consequence of Edward Snowden’s actions.