Snowden and our civil liberties

We add our voice to the many – including the New York Times and the UK Guardian – calling for clemency for Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower who exposed the National Security Agency’s massive domestic spying program. The NSA’s unprecedented invasion of Americans’ privacy included collecting phone and email records and other personal information of millions of ordinary citizens.

Snowden, a contractor with the NSA, says he first attempted to raise his concerns with his superiors over this unconstitutional activity, but was ignored. So he made the information public. The result has been unprecedented nationwide outrage and debate, and a welcome renewed attention to the need to protect our essential civil liberties.

Along with landmark struggles for freedom and democracy, this nation also has an unfortunate history of repression and attacks on civil liberties, carried out in the name of protecting the country from “threats.” The Palmer Raids of 1919-1920 and the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s are only two examples. So Americans have good reason to be concerned about the NSA program that Snowden revealed.

The NSA mass surveillance operation is a continuation of a renewed undermining of civil liberties launched with the misnamed USA PATRIOT Act, enacted in 2001 following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Among other things, the PATRIOT Act authorized warrantless government searches of phone, email and financial records.  Starting in 2002 the Bush administration ordered the NSA to conduct widespread wiretapping of Americans’ phone calls without any court orders. In 2008, additional legislation provided immunity to telecommunications companies who cooperate with such government programs.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration has continued these kinds of unconstitutional actions.

Those who are demanding Snowden’s head have set up a false opposition between protecting safety and protecting civil liberties. As many experts have pointed out, the NSA’s massive domestic surveillance program is not making us safer. It did not prevent last year’s Boston Marathon massacre, for example, even though the bombers used cell phones extensively. To truly seek out actual terrorists, the experts point out, law enforcement agencies can pursue targeted information-gathering without violating our constitutional rights. Instead, the NSA program, scooping up random massive amounts of personal data without warrant, has compromised our national security by undermining the values that have encouraged generations to rally to this nation’s defense –  whenever it actually was in danger. “Our values have been our best national security asset – in times of war and in times of peace and in eras of upheaval,” said President Obama in a speech in 2009.

In the wake of Snowden’s revelations and the furor that they have unleashed, President Obama appears to be having second thoughts. He is reportedly preparing to announce reforms that would curb the NSA abuses. That is welcome. But it would not have come about if Snowden had not made the NSA’s unconstitutional spying program public.

Those who argue that Snowden should be severely punished for breaking the law miss the point. The information that he exposed is vital to the preservation of our democracy. For his service and his bravery he deserves thanks and a normal life – not a life in prison or having to run from prosecution.

We urge the administration to recognize this fact by offering leniency or clemency to Edward Snowden.

Furthermore, we urge the administration and Congress to take prompt executive and legislative action to end warrantless spying on Americans and other government violations of our essential civil liberties. 

Photo: Edward Snowden. AP