The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

June 17, 2013

Geoff Caldwell, guest columnist: Jury still out on whistle-blower’s actions

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” — Ben Franklin

JOPLIN, Mo. — “The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.”

— Edward Snowden

Whether you see Edward Snowden as a hero, a traitor or something in between, there is no denying that the admitted “leaker” has opened up an industrial-size can of National Security Agency worms.

While it is clear that Snowden broke the law, where he’s going to wind up on the hero-traitor spectrum is still hazy. Many facts are still unknown, and far too little information has been disclosed thus far.

Perhaps the most intriguing event in these first few days since the story broke is how Snowden’s actions have blown up the traditional “D” and “R” political divide.

Instead of White House and political party talking points, we Americans are hearing what we haven’t heard in years: a good, old-fashioned philosophical debate on the Constitution, the Fourth Amendment and the balance between national security and Americans’ right to privacy.

Now if — and I do stress “if” — Snowden is proven correct, it would appear he’s a hell of a lot closer to Franklin and the founders than the Rosenbergs.

This whole NSA thing reminds me of “Animal House” and the double-secret probation at the Delta house. Of course, Delta members broke the rules, because they didn’t know what the rules were.

Yes, there is congressional oversight by a few select committee members who are sworn to not say anything, even if they feel legal boundaries have been crossed.

Yes, there is judicial review by a rubber-stamp court, releasing unscrutinized opinions.

The key to me is that there are no checks or balances on the gatekeepers. You can’t challenge the constitutionality of secret proceedings, because they are secret decisions made by secret people operating under secret legal opinions.

Factor in the horrendous amount of classification creep that has infected the government over the past 30 years, and you’ve got the perfect petri dish in which to grow unthinkable abuses of power.

I have no clue at this point whether Snowden is a patriotic whistle-blower or a traitorous scum bag, but I do know that the Patriot Act opened up one huge can of privacy worms and that the Obama administration has put those worms on steroids.

The Founders were well aware of the danger of an ever-present, all-powerful government, and wrote pages upon pages to ensure that future generations never forget their warnings.

It’s worth noting that all the signs of 9/11 were already there in the years before the planes hit the towers, and there was no NSA web then. The NSA expansion failed to stop the underwear bomber, the Benghazi slayings and the Boston Marathon bombers, even with its unprecedented access to private information.

It’s just my two cents, but from what I’ve seen so far, the leak has not been used to put operative lives in danger, but rather to inject some long-overdue Brandeis “sunshine” and start the disinfecting process.

In the end, I guess it all boils down to whether you trust the government with all your private data. Personally, I do not, but others have no problem with it.

All I ask is that if you do fall into the trust side of the argument, take a moment to remember the centuries of history that are littered with the coffins of those who also trusted government for the sake of their security.

Yes, we live in dangerous times, but so have previous generations. If we allow such overreaching, all-encompassing surveillance just for the sake of storing it for later, just in case, then Osama bin Laden has won.

For once, privacy is no longer being seen as a pillar of liberty. It’s only a matter of time before the remaining rights become negotiable as well.

Franklin saw the danger of negotiating rights for unquantifiable security. Snowden, at least with the information we have now, seems to see it, too.

Geoff Caldwell lives in Joplin.

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