There is an important debate going on somewhere at the intersection of where politics and social media using rapidly advancing technology meet. Perhaps for the first time in my life it doesn't matter what party you belong to. It doesn't matter at all. The issue of privacy transcends political party. With national security at risk, an important conversation has begun in Washington, D.C. and caught fire around the dinner table all over the country. What do you like more? Your privacy? Your safety? Both?
Few figures in living memory have been as acutely polarizing as Edward Snowden. For many across the country, the issue is assuredly black and white. The former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor who leaked top-secret information about the NSA's data gathering capabilities with programs code-named PRISM and Boundless Informant has been both damned a traitor and heralded a messiah. To his detractors, Snowden is an American Judas: he swore allegiance to his country and was given the responsibility to safeguard its secrets. Nevertheless, he fled the country as a turncoat carrying top-secret files on a flash drive. Claiming it was for his own safety, Snowden decided to spill the beans in Hong Kong, an "autonomous" region of the Communist "People's Republic" of China, where he provided extensive interviews to Chinese newspapers and leaked confidential documents. Through social media, he broadcast incriminatory messages about the Land of the Free to every corner of the globe. As of this writing, Snowden is living as a jet set celebrity while a fugitive from the American government. According to the news, he plans on making a pit stop in Moscow, the seat of a modern-day dictator, on his way towards an unknown destination. Rumor has it that Snowden is seeking political asylum in a "free" country like Venezuela to protect him from extradition or rendition to the Home of the Brave.
By law, the National Security Agency is charged with the collection and analysis of foreign communication and signals intelligence. In the age of Big Data and exponentially growing Internet, theirs is an extraordinary responsibility. All three branches of the American government, including officials from every party, have authorized programs designed to prevent disaster from occurring. For the purposes of safeguarding national security and American interests, the NSA and its elected oversight committees have, for decades, carefully shrouded the spy agency's futuristic capabilities with near-complete secrecy.
Edward Snowden unilaterally decided to divulge these top-secret operational details to the world. In one fell swoop, the mystery that once protected and promulgated NSA operations has vanished. Snowden's data leaks and subsequent interviews with the media and, in all likelihood, with inquiring foreign intelligence agencies has already resulted in devastating consequences for American relations abroad. The stature and influence of our diplomatic corps at the State Department and the reputation of our clandestine services have been traumatically damaged. To the Anti-Snowden camp, in an age of both nationless terrorism and an uneasy détente with rogue states, Edward Snowden committed sins unforgivable: he aided the enemy, furnishing every radical organization in the world with blueprints to the most valuable components of the American defense infrastructure. Perhaps worse, he gifted untold measures of political capital to our enemies and provided ready-made propaganda that is sure to foment anti-American attitudes and destructive behavior.
As a result, it should come as no surprise that elected officials across the board condemn Snowden. In fact, the Anti-Snowden crowd is perhaps the most diverse collective in American politics: it is made up of people from every wing of every party. Liberal lions and ultra-conservatives are, for the first time since 9/11, standing together to angrily shake their fists and mutter promises of a righteous, vengeful justice. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has declared Snowden a traitor and recently declared "I hope we'll chase him to the ends of the Earth." House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was booed after describing Snowden as a criminal at a liberal conference in San Jose, California, near her home district. Her response was to lecture the crowd, "...you don't have the responsibility for the security of the United States. Those of us who do have to strike a difference balance." Both Republican Congressman Peter King and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein have accused Snowden of treason, yet they are diametrically opposed on so many other topics.
Given this perspective, it's astonishing that millions of American citizens are celebrating this "self-evident treason." Huge masses of Democrats and Republicans alike are united in support of what some consider to be virulently anti-American activity.
For many, patriotism isn't defined by protecting the soulless institutions of government. Millions of Americans believe that a patriot is a man with the guts to stand up for his people. Edward Snowden, they believe, is a heroic whistleblower who has given the American people, for the first time, the ability to debate one of the most complicated and important subjects of the 21st Century. He's a hero because he did it with great personal sacrifice, giving up everything he loves for a cause he believes in, protecting Americans by giving them a choice when they did not know they had one. Through social media, Americans are now able to ask questions that surely deserve an answer: before Edward Snowden became a martyr for the cause, who was there to protect the All-American right to privacy? Others were not brave enough or able enough in the past to alert the public to the NSA's precarious and ubiquitous electronic spying activities. When the secret court stocked with secret judges who approve secret NSA programs convenes, who is there to argue for our rights to privacy? Moreover, why were our elected officials so quick to waive our liberties in pursuit of a modicum of security? What dangers are so grave that warrantless wiretapping, itself outrageous, should be infinitely expanded through every communication medium?
These are questions that liberals and conservatives alike want answered. It's why Republicans such as Rand Paul to Democrats like Alan Grayson all agree that Snowden's leaks have allowed the public to finally determine how much privacy we are willing to give up. Even polar opposites Michael Moore and Glenn Beck agree on something: both have called Snowden a hero.
According to documents leaked to the UK's Guardian, monitoring domestic signals is verboten at the NSA; they are strictly authorized to monitor foreign communications. But is there anyone who thinks the NSA has not monitored American citizens communications on domestic soil? Snowden claims to have proof that the NSA had more digital communications collected on Americans than they do from the Russians. Already, documentation has been released that indicates that the NSA specifically targets all communicants who encrypt their data, potentially forever, as well as people who communicate with people on foreign soil. In an interconnected world, that could be everyone. The NSA, we have learned, has nearly unfettered access to all electronic communications including email, cell phone call records, text messages, GPS data and more. Should they? It's 2013: as citizens of the modern world, we take our phones with us everywhere, including in the bedroom and in the bathroom. Although we have accepted today's fundamental technology, none of us have agreed to be monitored at all times like prisoners.
All Americans should surely understand that like any organization, the NSA is a collection of fallible people. The problem is that this group has incredible and practically unchecked power. For instance, Snowden himself was just a contractor system administrator, yet he had the capability to bug the President of the United States. How, one may ask, could we empower individual people so, no matter how extensive the background checks may be? Many Americans would balk at their neighbor, friend or ex opening up their physically delivered mail. Undoubtedly, those same Americans should feel outraged knowing that a nameless government employee - or contractor - could intrude upon their last vestiges of privacy and intimate moments.
For many, the many questions all boil down to one: is Snowden a Hero or a Villain? The answer, unfortunately for all those looking for an easy fix, isn't black or white. The color entirely depends on one's perspective. Those who believe that a world with nuclear bombs, bio-weapons and terrorists willing to use them is too dangerous to permit unchecked communication may be more easily willing to trade privacy for more security, with the proviso that the intrusion is not too inconvenient. For people with this worldview, Snowden is assuredly a criminal whose actions maimed American military and intelligence predominance. But Snowden's response to this perspective resonates with all the Americans on the other side. Snowden said, "It is not that I do not value intelligence, but that I oppose . . .omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance.. . . That seems to me a greater threat to the institutions of free society than missed intelligence reports, and unworthy of the costs." Many Americans agree.
Edward Snowden has already articulated where he stands on the proper balance of privacy and security. So has Lindsey Graham and Dianne Feinstein, Alan Grayson and Rand Paul. The time is right for everyone else to have their say. Snowden might have set fire to an American security blanket that kept us warm but constricted, but now that the ashes are settling, the American people finally have the space and opportunity to debate an essential subject. Because this issue transcends organized parties and prefabricated political philosophies, the American people will have to contemplate before deciding how we move forward as a country. They'll have to think long and hard.
What an exercise that will be.