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June 10, 2013 at 1:16 PM

Civil Disagreement: Edward Snowden, NSA, the complexity of civil disobedience

Civil Disagreement pits two members of the Seattle Times editorial board against each other on a question. Here Lance Dickie (left) and Jonathan Martin debate the decision by Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning to disclose confidential information about the U.S. government.

dickie,lance-webRevealing secrets is not their call to make

The biggest secret to be revealed by Army private Bradley Manning and CIA contractor Edward Snowden is the abject failure of Congress to provide any oversight of the massive growth of America’s top-secret spy and surveillance infrastructure.

The trouble with Manning and Snowden is that, however history might judge their civil disobedience, it was not their call to make. Leaking gigabytes of classified information by Manning and Snowden’s revelations about endemic domestic spying were arrogant, dangerous acts. However shocking the disclosures, this is not the way to alert the public.

The values and vagaries of civil disobedience have stirred passionate discourse for centuries. And the consequences can range from blocking traffic in the name of a civil rights march, to putting individual and national security at risk. Manning and Snowden acted with a complete disregard for what might come next; no apparent sense of context or discretion.

These calls were not theirs to make. Each was entrusted with access to information, and they formally promised to respect the trust invested in them. Both violated that trust, and they are not heroes for that behavior.

America operates on a variety of levels of expectations of privacy and data security. Great swaths of society and commerce operate on presumptions of trust and privacy. Does applause for Manning and Snowden empower the IT clerk at the bank to go online with customer financial information in the name of economic equity and justice? Does an employee in a hospital or public health agency have the right to disclose names and details about sexually transmitted diseases in the name of protecting society?

Where was Congress while all of this top-secret data was being collected and reviewed? Paying the bills. Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin have spent years telling America about the breath-taking expansion of domestic spying. The PBS “Frontline” documentary on “Top Secret America” is a good place to catch up.

Manning and Snowden are oblivious to the consequences of their actions, and lots of the ramifications are yet to be revealed and understood. I can confidently share one indisputable reaction to their behavior.

Stupendous sums of taxpayer dollars will be spent to recreate the links that were revealed, clamp down on security, invest in new hardware and generally duplicate everything that was exposed and compromised. A clueless, duplicitous Congress will nod its head, feel a little giddy about closed-door briefings and sign the checks.

Manning and Snowden will cost the budget hundreds of billions of dollars, with negligible improvements for our security or civil rights.

Yes, indeed, Americans need to know what their government is doing for them and to them. Manning and Snowden likely only increased the zeal for official secrecy.





The two showed courage

Lance,  we’ve now had two of the most significant whistle blowers in history — Manning and now Snowden — in just three years. They’re relatively low-level IT guys, with little education (Snowden was a high school dropout). And yet they had top-security clearance, and walked out with hidden intelligence gems.

Most importantly, they appear to have pure motives. That doesn’t mean they will or should be immune from consequences (Manning already pleaded guilty). But they were compelled to daylight actions taken in America’s name which fundamentally conflict American values of individual liberty and transparency. What’s reprehensible: Constitutional violations on an industrial scale, or the courage to disclose them?

Even before the disclosure that the NSA was sweeping metadata on Americans’ cell phone calls and directly tapping into leading Internet providers, we knew the $75 billion-a-year security state intercepted 60,000 phone calls and emails every second. The recent WikiLeaks documentary, “We Steal Secrets,” had chilling satellite photos of the physical expansion of National Security Agency sites across the country. Our constitution requires police to get a warrant before putting a GPS tracker on your car, or to get your phone records. But in pursuit of potential terrorism, those checks evaporate.

As a nation, we agreed to give up some liberties in the wake of 9/11 with the Patriot Act, with some caveats. Remember the outcry over the Patriot Act’s reach into public libraries? We are now 12 years on, the Patriot Act still the law, and the reach is now into our email inbox.

Lance, I agree that Congress has been supine in its duty to check expansion of the security state. U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., summed up the “meh” reaction in an interview on FOX: “I don’t think you’re talking to terrorists. I know you’re not. I know I’m not. So, we don’t have anything to worry about.” Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., said called the PRISM program legal.

Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., – guys across the political spectrum – admirably pushed back. Take a moment and watch Wyden’s fiery floor speech during the Patriot Act re-authorization in 2011. “When the American people will find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they’re going to be stunned, and they’re going to be angry. They’re going to ask, ‘Senators, do you know what this law actually permits?’ ”

The result: the Patriot Act sailed through Congress with little public debate. Now, because of Snowden, we’re having that debate. “The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change,” Snowden told Glenn Greenwald in an interview with the Guardian newspaper. “They’ll know the lengths the government is going to grant themselves power unilaterally to take create greater control over American society and global society, but they won’t be wiling to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things, to force their representatives to take stand in their interest.”

Comments | More in Civil Disagreement, Pro/con | Topics: nsa, privacy


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