NSA Prism Whistleblower Snowden Deserves A Medal

Without Snowden's leaks, we wouldn't be pursuing rational, democratic debates on the government's post-Sept. 11 balance between security and civil liberties.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

June 12, 2013

6 Min Read

Is Edward Joseph Snowden an altruistic whistle-blower? A reckless criminal? An outright traitor? Or somewhere in between?

Those are frequently debated questions in the wake of Snowden's recent leaks of at least three National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs: Prism, which aims to intercept foreigners' audio, email and video from major Web services including Facebook, Gmail, Hotmail and Skype; Boundless Informant, a data mining tool that tracks where intelligence originates; and another program that analyzes millions of U.S. phone records, capturing metadata related to phone numbers called, call durations and the approximate geographical location of the caller.

Snowden, a contractor for Booz Allen working at an NSA satellite office in Hawaii -- and now believed to be in a safe house in Hong Kong -- gave up a well-paid job and stable life to bring to light a surveillance program that he has characterized as a threat to democracy. "Perhaps I am naive," Snowden told The Washington Post, "but I believe that at this point in history, the greatest danger to our freedom and way of life comes from the reasonable fear of omniscient state powers kept in check by nothing more than policy documents."

[ What lessons can CIOs learn from Prism? See NSA Dragnet Debacle: What It Means To IT. ]

Charges against Snowden have already been filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, and both the FBI and NSA have launched investigations. "If Edward Snowden did in fact leak the NSA data as he claims, the United States government must prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law and begin extradition proceedings at the earliest date," read a statement from Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who chairs the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterintelligence and Terrorism.

"He's a traitor," House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told ABC News Tuesday. "The disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk. It shows our adversaries what our capabilities are. And it's a giant violation of the law."

But others take a contrary view, as Snowden's leak has highlighted programs that appear to be operating outside the law. From a civil liberties standpoint, the phone record collection is "rampant abuse and it needs sunlight," said Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke the leak story. "That's why this person came forward and that's why we published our stories."

The Obama administration's defense of the formerly secret -- and no doubt still operational -- surveillance programs is that they were authorized by Congress and overseen both by legislators and the judiciary, in the form of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

"Everything that has been done and reported on in the last several days involves programs that have congressional oversight -- and regularized congressional oversight -- from the relevant committees," said White House spokesman Ben Rhodes in a Saturday press conference. "So the elected representatives of the American people do have eyes on these programs."

Or do they? James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, lied to a Senate committee in March, in response to a question from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Wyden had asked. To which Clapper replied: "No, sir."

Called out on that denial in the wake of the phone-monitoring revelations, Clapper told NBC News: "I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying 'no.'" Clapper said he didn't view the captured and stored metadata records as a "collection" if they weren't looked at.

What oversight or accountability was served by Clapper's evasion? "Secrecy is necessary for national security programs, but so too is democratic accountability," said Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, in a blog post.

President Obama has said that the programs are being run in a way that balances civil liberties concerns with security requirements. "If we did everything necessary for our security, we would sacrifice too much privacy and civil liberties, but if we did everything necessary to have 100% privacy and civil liberties protections, we wouldn't be taking common-sense steps to protect the American people," White House spokesman Rhodes said.

But that balance is now open for discussion. "We'll have that debate," Rhodes said. "We welcome congressional interest in these issues. We welcome the interest of the American people and of course the media in these issues." Without Snowden's leaks, however, we wouldn't be having this debate. Furthermore, by bringing the surveillance programs to public attention, Snowden has put himself at personal risk, and not just of incarceration. "In Dulles UAL lounge listening to 4 US intel officials saying loudly leaker & reporter on #NSA stuff should be disappeared," tweeted Atlantic foreign reporter Steve Clemons.

To decide where Snowden falls in the spectrum between altruistic whistleblower and dangerous criminal, it helps to put the leaks into perspective. "In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden's release of NSA material -- and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago," Daniel Ellsberg wrote Monday. Ellsberg is a former military analyst and RAND employee who in 1971 leaked to The New York Times the secret history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers, which showed how four successive presidential administrations lied to the public about Vietnam policies.

Whistleblowers are vital to the health of a democracy. "Whistleblowing is the moral response to immoral activity by those in power," said information security guru Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer of BT, in a blog post, in which he lauded Snowden as "an American hero."

Schneier argued that we need more people like Edward Snowden who, when they see evidence of wrongdoing, release information on "government programs and methods, not data about individuals," which alludes to Snowden saying he carefully selected leaked data so it wouldn't put intelligence agents or overseas operations at risk.

"I understand I am asking for people to engage in illegal and dangerous behavior," Schneier said. "Do it carefully and do it safely, but -- and I am talking directly to you, person working on one of these secret and probably illegal programs -- do it."

For the rest of us, should whistle-blowers who bring to light "illegal and dangerous behavior" get a "stay out of jail free" card? When leaks are done in a manner that doesn't put lives at risk, that does seem to be the appropriate, democratic response.

About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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