Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Snowden and the NSA

Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis
After the homilies he immortalized in Poor Richard’s Almanac (“A penny saved is a penny earned,” “Early to bed and early to rise …,” “Old too soon and wise too late”), Benjamin Franklin is best known for two more mature aphorisms: “A Republic, madam, if you can keep it” and “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
In other words, alongside of the wise Mr. Franklin, I am squarely on Edward Snowden’s side in this contest between the forces of civil liberties vs national security.  If we can’t protect ourselves without resorting to undermining the very freedoms that make us proud to be Americans in the first place, well then, God help us.
Having said that, this is a tough one.
I don’t think we want to live in a society where every government worker takes it upon himself to decide what government secrets ought to remain secret.  There ARE legitimate government secrets and we need not air all our dirty laundry all the time.  I don’t think I need to have access to the conversations of the President with everyone he speaks 24/7, as long as I know they will all be made public, for the sake of history, after 20 years’ time.  Same for all his cabinet secretaries.  And Senators, and Congressmen.  The lives of the public (I mean “us”) are quite busy enough, as long as we get to know the results of all their conversations, as long as the press gives us what we need to be informed citizens.  I think it is appropriate that we criminalize behavior that is anti-social, and revealing classified information to the public is surely at least anti-social; in a few cases, indeed, it may reach to treason.
On the other hand, it is quite clear that government can be over-zealous in protecting itself by classifying way too many conversations and documents as top secret, often to spare the official actors from embarrassment, often to spare them from revealing to the public what the public really needs to know.
So, to come to the point: should Edward Snowden be charged with treason, or some lesser crime, and spend a long time in prison for confronting the American public with the dirty laundry of how we protect ourselves, behind closed doors?
click photo for story
When I began this piece, I was going to end with a humble “I see no solution.  While I applaud what Snowden did, I do not want to encapsulate his actions into law, I don’t want all our secrets to be fair game for public scrutiny, I don’t want every public employee taking upon himself the mantle of whistle-blower.  So, what do I do with Snowden?  I don’t know.  Read Melville’s Billy Budd for a thoughtful treatise on the right vs. the law.  Sorry, no easy answer.  You’re an American hero, Ed, but don’t come home, because you will be headed for federal prison.”
But I think I begin to see the glimmer of a solution.  The jury at any criminal trial in America consists of twelve men tried and true.  They represent us, all of us.  Let them, before the man who thinks himself a patriot stands trial, decide the question of damage, damage to the republic for having its dirty linen aired in public.  Let them decide if damage has been done to us.  If they decide that he has done us harm, let him stand trial for the harm he did us.  If they decide that he has done us no harm, let Snowden walk – no damage, no crime, no trial.  If they decide that damage was done us by those who classified the documents as secret, let us look into that.
I would be happy to sit on such a jury.  But of course, my mind is already made up, so I would never be seated.  <sigh>
Would Edward Snowden take the chance and come home to stand trial?  Weigh in, if you like.