October 26, 2020

Traitor or whistleblower

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Traitor or whistleblower

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – It didn’t take long, just one news cycle and Edward Snowden’s name is added to a relatively short list of people who have been willing to take extraordinary risks to reveal secrets they think the government should not be keeping. It is either a case of the lesser sin for the greater good or the greater sin for no good.

Will our democracy grow stronger if the debate over phone and Internet data collection is brought out into the sunshine? Or is the Director of the National Intelligence James Clapper, correct in saying the country’s national security defenses have been devastated?

These are the competing value judgments that the American people are grappling with in the wake of Snowden’s decision to turn over a trove of classified material to the Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post. There are also some basic facts that must form the foundation of how this story is reported and debated.

Snowden, is a 29-year-old who took an oath when he received a top security clearance from the government, and then from Booz Allen, the private CIA contractor that employed him for the last three months when he did his document dump. That oath was a vow of secrecy that he violated, leaving the Obama administration no choice but to prosecute.

If the government prosecutes him to the full extent of the law, Snowden will spend a very long time in prison, though some will see him as a martyr. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times during the Nixon administration, calls Snowden a hero, and says he’s been waiting for someone like him to appear on the national scene for 40 years.

Ellsberg was an analyst for the Rand Corporation when he decided that he couldn’t condone keeping secret a report about the decision-making that went into the Vietnam War, beginning with the Kennedy administration, continuing through the Johnson administration and into the Nixon years. The disparity between the private analysis over three administrations, Democratic and Republican, was so at odds with what the public was being told that Ellsberg felt a responsibility to break his oath of secrecy and turn the classified document over to the Times to make public.

The government’s legal case against Ellsberg was dismissed as the Watergate scandal unfolded and the extent of President Nixon’s law breaking became apparent. So Ellsberg became known to history as a whistleblower.

But Snowden does not fit so neatly into the box of traitor or whistleblower, which is why his defenders and his critics don’t align along predictable lines. History shows us there are occasions when bringing classified information to light is commendable. Snowden went public within days of the publication of his material to say that he understands that he could go to prison, and that he took the action he did with full knowledge of what might await him. On the one hand, this type of attitude, backed up by a willingness to suffer the consequences, incentivizes the government to classify only that which truly should be classified. On the other hand, if individuals are allowed to choose what should and what should not be classified, espionage anarchy would reign.

Snowden has forced a debate that President Obama says he welcomes, and it’s a debate that’s long overdue when considering that these data collection programs have been in place since 2007. Obama instituted judicial safeguards and congressional oversight, but the extent of the eavesdropping brought to light by Snowden brings public opinion into the equation.

On the surface at least, the fact of these programs’ existence was certainly already known by our enemies. Surely they know America has the technological capability. Yet, there are secrets that must be kept, and severe penalties paid by people who don’t abide by that commitment. In the end, the Snowdens and Ellsbergs of this country keep the government honest. Government prosecution of them helps keep such incidences to a minimum. It is a difficult, dangerous balance.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

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