Why Edward Snowden Should Be Pardoned

I’ve been assembling some thoughts on the NSA leaker Edward Snowden who revealed the existence of top-secret government surveillance programs, including the PRISM project to tap into the customer data of the nation’s largest internet companies, and a court order requiring Verizon to turn over metadata on all calls in its system on an ongoing basis (I’m still astonished that any court could ever have considered that request to comport with the Fourth Amendment).

Already there are fierce arguments over whether Snowden should be prosecuted (HT: Neurobonkers). I’m aware that he views his deed as an act of civil disobedience against government overreach, and in most cases, I support peaceful civil disobedience only as long as the person doing it is willing to take the consequences. But this case is different. I think Snowden’s acts are properly viewed as whistleblowing – that is, the exposure of official malfeasance – and therefore deserving of a pardon. And if the government won’t pardon him and insists on prosecution, I’d advocate that anyone chosen to serve on his jury should refuse to convict him.

I argue this for one reason: Democracy requires the consent of the people. The reason we have elections is so that, if we don’t like what our representatives are doing, we can kick them out of office. If the public is kept in the dark about our government’s policies, then it’s impossible for us to exercise that power in a meaningful and informed way. The branches of the U.S. government were created to check and balance each other, but ultimately we, the voters, are the final check. If we’re denied the information we need to use it wisely, that protection is subverted.

Whether it’s dragnet wiretapping, a secret drone war, hidden black-site prisons, the explosive growth of classified documents, secret legal opinions, the unprecedentedly aggressive prosecution of leakers, or even the longstanding censorship of photos of returning military coffins, the mushrooming secrecy state denies us that power that’s rightfully and ultimately vested in us, and is corrosive to the legitimacy of democratic government. (And I haven’t even mentioned the catch-22 of the government arguing that as long as they don’t admit the existence of illegal spying programs, no one has standing to sue over them and litigate their constitutionality.)

That’s why President Obama was so badly wrong when he said this:

“If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure we’re abiding by the Constitution, then we’re going to have some problems here,” Obama said.

No, Mr. President: “Trust us” is not acceptable as the basis of a democratic government. (The administration also absurdly claimed it welcomed the debate, when in reality they went to every length possible to prevent the debate from ever happening.) Even though President Obama didn’t begin these policies, he’s acquiesced to them and allowed them to continue, which makes him equally culpable.

Of course, specific actions taken by the government can be kept secret. A prosecutor shouldn’t have to warn a mob boss that he’s under suspicion and is being wiretapped, nor should a general have to disclose the movements of his troops. But the policies themselves can’t be secret. We may not know who’s being wiretapped, but we have the right to know that such a power exists. We may not know how our soldiers are maneuvering, but we have the right to know that there’s a war being fought. And to prevent abuses of even legitimate powers – like the FBI wiretapping its political enemies in the hope of digging up blackmail – official secrecy should be strictly limited in scope, temporary in duration, and subject to challenge and independent oversight. The spying we now know is being conducted by our government fails that test on every count.

The only argument proffered in response to this is that the government also has a responsibility to keep us safe, and these programs accomplish that. But even if that’s true, the Constitution sets limits on the means by which that goal can be achieved. If the U.S. were turned into a police state with 1984-style spy cameras in every home, that would also keep us safe, but only at a cost which outrages the Bill of Rights and which most people would find repugnant. Again, we the people are entitled to know the means by which the government proposes to protect us, so that we can weigh the costs and benefits and make an informed decision. The patronizing, sinister rhetoric “just trust us” has no place in a nation formed in rebellion against the tyranny of an unaccountable leader.

Image credit: Shutterstock

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Jason Wexler

    Adam, I know I am usually the wet blanket on your blog, but on this issue I am thrilled to say I have never agreed with you more, on a matter of real consequence. Thank you for articulating such a spectacular and eloquent response to those calling for the prosecution of Mr. Snowden.

  • Figs

    I’m usually with you on most things, Adam, but I couldn’t disagree more on this. I think that the discussion is important, but that’s completely separate from Snowden, and the implications of what he’s done. What he’s done was emphatically not whistleblowing, and was not civil disobedience.

  • L.Long

    Sorry but he has no chance. He did the number 1 wrong thing to do…. He pissed off and embarrassed powerful rich people in the gov’mint, spooky, scary people!
    He is toast!

  • Azkyroth

    Then what was it? Or is your dog-collar fastened too tightly to get it all out before you run out of breath?

  • Azkyroth

    in most cases, I support peaceful civil disobedience only as long as the person doing it is willing to take the consequences.

    I don’t understand this mentality. Enforcing an unjust law is obviously wrong.

  • Alejandro

    Yeah, privacy rights are slowly dissapearing in America. With the amount of people considering this “normal” or “necessary for homeland security”, I would not be suprised if things got worse several years down the road. For the guys who actually support this, don’t be shocked some years later when the government goes after you because they saw in your email that you smoked some weed the other day, or contacted a prostitute, or flirted with a 17 year old girl in facebook, or failed to report taxes on those 500 your mother gave you for birthday.

    “But they said the will not use it on Americans!!!! The said they won’t do anything on the data unless there is a security threath!!!!Blablablablabla”

    Yeah, right. Im sure they are being completely honest about it and not lying as they have already done a million times. Im sure it won’t be like using something designed for terrorism (the Patrioct Act) to go against pot dealers, surely they won’t be giving out IRS data to your enemies like they have already done….yeah, the government is always perfect and can be 100% trusted on everything.

  • Jack Mudge

    I think the point is not that we should enforce the law, but rather that when someone is doing an act of civil disobedience, they must be prepared to accept that the unjust law might just *be* enforced.
    Enforcement of the law after civil disobedience is often the first step to getting rid of it.

  • Wayne F.

    You’ve taken a shortcut here, in concluding that Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing deserves a pardon as you say. The one does not lead to the other.

    I staunchly support his actions, and point out the fallacy in talking about a Pardon being required here, as follows:

    1. Edward Snowden has committed no crime. It is the privilege, duty and OBLIGATION of any citizen in any democratic country to do what Edward Snowden has done. I repeat: NO CRIME COMMITTED.

    2. NSA has been revealed to be conducting excessive and illegal surveillance on citizens, and not only in the USA. THERE is the criminal activity, and THERE is where investigation and prosecution is needed.

    3. Asking for / demanding a pardon completely plays into the hands of the NSA and their complicit partners (Obama administration etc.). The NSA wishes to deflect from their own wrong-doing, and scape-goat Edward Snowden. A pardon COMPLETELY supports that. Well-meaning, but wrong-headed thinking.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.co.uk/ Steve Bowen

    Snowden will have more friends outside of the U.S than within I think. The level of anger around the U.K and Europe over America apparently unilaterally screening the data of non U.S citizens is not playing well this side of the pond. Even the though U.K coalition is squirming trying to simultaneously justify and obfuscate around what they did or didn’t know about this policy.

  • Figs

    I don’t even really know what that’s supposed to mean. You can be as much of an asshole as you please, I’m not going to play the tone police, but I’d rather if you actually made sense.

    Whistleblowing exposes illegality, right? This may not be something we wish to be done, but its certainly not illegal. More, it’s not even a new revelation. We have known about this stuff happening for years, we just forgot about it and now are acting all breathless about it. If we don’t like the law, we should change it. But these are the powers that have been granted the president, not some kind of overreach on Obama’s part. Congress needs to assert itself to change the law if we don’t want this to be legal.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    Yes, that’s my point. The purpose of civil disobedience is to volunteer for an unjust law to be enforced upon yourself so that people see the injustice of it.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    This may not be something we wish to be done, but its certainly not illegal.

    I agree that it’s not illegal, in the narrow sense that Congress voted for laws authorizing it. I don’t agree that it’s constitutional. Don’t forget, the constitutionality of programs like these has never been upheld in an adversarial court proceeding, because of the catch-22 I referenced earlier: when sued for illegal surveillance, the government refuses to admit the existence of such a program on the grounds of “state secrets”, and then claims that because it won’t acknowledge the program exists, the plaintiff can’t prove they’ve suffered harm and therefore they have no standing.

    More, it’s not even a new revelation.

    It was widely suspected that something like this was going on, yes. But for the first time, we have direct confirmation of it. That does change things, not least for the groups who are planning to sue over it.

  • Figs

    See, this is one of those cases where I agree with a lot of what’s being said, but I cannot agree with the logical jump of “therefore what Snowden did is good and right and he should not be punished at all.” I think these are two separate issues. I think the oversight regime of the national security state is atrocious, often by design, and I think that needs to change. I think information is quite often over classified, and I think that needs to change. I think if the government believes that they legitimately can’t discuss a case in public for “state secrets” reasons, that claim ought to be subject to much more scrutiny and accountability than none, which is the case right now. And even if its ruled that there is a compelling interest in protecting state secrets, that ought not shut the proceedings down, but rather divert them to a sensitive arena. I agree with all this stuff. But I don’t think it equates in any way to Snowden’s actions being justified, much less laudable.

  • Space Blizzard

    While Snowden’s actions are wrong from a legal point of view, I would be interested in anyone trying to explain why they’re wrong morally.

  • Figs

    How does fleeing to China and actively seeking asylum from other countries to avoid the enforcement of this law against oneself change the calculus on this?

  • Figs

    This is insanely wrongheaded. Just because you agree with something doesn’t make it illegal. And much as you don’t like it, disclosure of classified information after one has been entrusted to protect it, that IS illegal.

  • David Simon

    Or is your dog-collar fastened too tightly to get it all out before you run out of breath?

    I agree with the point you’re getting at, but please stop saying this kind of stuff. Indiscriminately insulting and belittling people is not what this movement or community should be about.

    I’ve bit back at you in the past, partly to try and make it clear that this attitude doesn’t represent me even when we agree substantively, and partly because I was just angry. But I’m done with that as of now, because it actually just makes everything worse.

    So I’m asking you seriously and sincerely, please stop this.

  • Azkyroth

    I don’t understand the view that people who hold appalling or disgusting views shouldn’t talked to like their views are appalling or disgusting, either. It basically extends the “well, you’re a little strange, but you’re okay” thing we might do with someone who, say, insists on rinsing off every dish or utensil, even fresh out of the dishwasher, before using it, to people who advocate actually tangibly harming others. And yes, the idea that laws shouldn’t be subordinated to justice but should be mindlessly enforced without regard for outcome is one of those ideas; it is so utterly poisonous to any kind of just or functional society that, while less obviously wrong than, say, advocating genocide, it belongs in the same general category (especially considering its track record of making excuses for the latter).

    I assume the root of this attitude is a deeply held discomfort with harsh language and a layer of insulating privilege thick enough to be used for battleship armor, which allows one to pretend that harsh language really is the worst thing in the world.

    Anyway, if my comments are so harsh but you agree with the underlying message, why not play a complementary “good-cop” role instead of wasting your energy attacking me for it?

  • Azkyroth

    I think it’s safe to say that when we voted for the people who went on to delegate those powers to the NSA, we did not vote for this. This puts us in the position of a defrauded customer. If a business is defrauding their customers, wouldn’t exposing that be “whistleblowing” even if the customers voluntarily ordered from it?

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    Yeah, I concur with this. Azkyroth, cool it with the personal attacks, please.

  • Azkyroth

    They were not wrong; the law has been perverted. Laws exist either to serve a purely organizational purpose for the efforts of society, or to act as a rough but more tractable approximation of justice. They have no other worth or value. Where they conflict with these aims, especially the second, they carry no moral weight.

  • Figs

    I think it’s a flawed understanding of our representative republic to think that a vote for anybody is a vote for everything they do. Besides, elections are the built in correction mechanism for ousting representatives who do things you don’t want them to do.

  • Azkyroth

    …….and how are we going to vote out representatives who do things we don’t want them to do if we aren’t allowed to find out what they’re doing?

  • Figs

    Jesus Christ, do you honestly believe that disagreeing with you about Edward Snowden is “in the same general category” as endorsing genocide? You’re so open minded that you’re willing to say this of me despite having had a long history of seeing other comments I’ve had on other things, and seeing only a couple of comments on this?

    We can disagree, and that’s fine. But you’re more interested into making me into a monster than having a discussion, and that’s a bunch of bullshit.

  • Figs

    I’m not saying that there don’t need to be changes to the system. There absolutely do. Oversight is a joke when the representatives tasked with it cannot bring staff or retain any materials related to the object of their oversight afterwards. Over classification is a real problem, as is the invocation of state secrets. These are things that absolutely need to be fixed. But there is indeed a place for secrecy in the context of national security, and given that there is such a place, there is not a place for any random person with a clearance to take it upon himself to reveal classified information and then, absurdly, get pardoned for it.
    I think the problem is hard, but the problem is real and needs to be addressed. But I cannot make the leap from there to believing that what Snowden did was justified, much less laudable.
    In case you were wondering, I wrote basically this same post in response to Adam earlier, before you equated me with a defender of genocide. Just sayin.

  • Azkyroth

    I suppose my phrasing is a bit hyperbolic; it was the first example that came to mind. But I stand by my view that the idea that whether a law is just is irrelevant is deeply and systematically poisonous, and insofar as the effects of this view has historically included genocide, I don’t think the comparison is completely absurd.

  • Figs

    I don’t believe you’ve actually solicited my opinion on unjust laws and whether its irrelevant to consider whether a law is unjust. You took the shortcut of assuming what you’d like me to have said, and then attacking the shit out of it. Bravo, you won that battle while I was standing to the side looking perplexed.

  • Azkyroth

    What other mechanism for fixing any of these problems can you propose, other than disclosing them to the people with whom the actual authority for the country theoretically rests?

  • Azkyroth

    …if your position isn’t derived from the assumption that laws should be enforced because “IT’S THE LAW” and whether the law is (either in general or as purported to apply to the situation at hand) just, reasonable, or at least not a flagrant abuse of the power those who wrote it were permitted to borrow isn’t relevant, then I have committed a pattern matching error and apologize.

  • Azkyroth

    Yes, but how are we going to vote out representatives who abuse the power we delegate to them if they’re allowed to abuse the power of secrecy we delegate to them to hide their other abuses?

  • Figs

    What I am saying is that the law Snowden violated is absolutely just and reasonable. There is a place for secrecy in national security, and part of that entails the people entrusted with it being subject to penalties if they break that trust. That’s not at all to say that every piece of classified information ought to be classified, but I don’t believe such a system can function if the precedent is set that anybody with a clearance can make that decision on his own without consequences. If those consequences are thought to be worth the disclosure, that’s fine, but like Adam hinted at earlier, part of that ought to be the willingness to submit to the consequences for knowingly breaking a law (and again, in this case, a law that is, in its conception, entirely just and reasonable, even if every piece of information it covers may not be reasonably protected).
    Again, this does not mean that the oversight system is even close to perfect. Only that the basic framework of classified information and penalties for divulging it isn’t fundamentally unsound, and Snowden unquestionably violated that.

  • Azkyroth

    There is indeed a place for secrecy in national security. It isn’t “concealing abuses of power.” We have granted the government the capacity to operate in secret on a limited basis where it is actually needed to achieve compelling objectives which can’t be achieved otherwise. The government and its agents have no legitimate authority to conceal abuses of power. We have not granted it to them (except passively by letting them get away with it and martyring anyone who stands up to them).

    This is like arguing that because corporations are justified in firing or taking legal action against employees who publish legitimate trade secrets, that therefore they should be able to retaliate against people who disclose that they’re laundering money. (It’s also why I specifically included the “as applied” parenthetical).

  • Figs

    Congress has to reclaim some of the power it has ceded to the executive. I don’t know exactly how to fix that, and I think it’s a thorny problem. I don’t mean that as a dodge, I really think its a difficult pervasive problem. But I don’t see what’s happened really leading to a sustained change the likes of which needs to happen.

  • Figs

    But this is the thing. Your mileage varies on what you’re calling “abuse of power”. I think it’s instead legal power that ought not to have been granted. It’s a subtle but important difference.

  • David Simon

    I don’t understand the view that people who hold appalling or disgusting views shouldn’t talked to like their views are appalling or disgusting, either.

    Mock and belittle ideas, I’m definitely behind that. But please not people, not unless you’re sure that you no longer want to treat them as someone worth ever having a real conversation with.

  • Wayne F.

    Agreed, David and Adam.
    In healthy debate, its important to attack ideas not people. If you’re compelled to make it personal and use vitriol, your input becomes unproductive and useless. Entirely apart from the ugliness in it, venting is a waste of time for people on BOTH sides of an argument.

    Please stop that, Azkyroth.

  • Wayne F.

    I also disagree that Snowden’s actions were ‘legally wrong though morally justifiable’.

    When a law is unjust – such as The Patriot Act, as regards the Fourth Amendment – it is a citizen’s right and obligation to protest it by whatever means necessary, including disobeying it. Snowden has committed no crime.

  • Wayne F.

    Exploring that for a moment – volunteering oneself to show the injustice – its important to recognize that for Snowden to have stayed in the USA would have profoundly diminished any chance for people to “see the injustice of it”. Look no further than Bradley Manning for an example of what U.S. military / intelligence communities will resort to, in order to “shut someone up”. Before being tried or even charged, mind.

    I support Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong as a measure to make his disobedience meaningful.

  • Wayne F.

    Setting aside for the moment my disagreement with “there is a place for secrecy in national security”…

    Among other things Snowden’s revelations have demonstrated that security leaders Alexander and Clapper both lied to Congress about the scope of NSA spying. This is but one measure of how vastly out-of-bounds that agency has become.

    Declaring something “classified” should never make it inviolate – surely you can see the potential folly in that.

  • Jason Wexler

    I am attempting with some minimal success to not read this discussion smugly; in light of previous disagreements about voting third party we have had.

    If memory serves the analogy was choosing between burning the town down slowly and burning it down fast, and I was harangued for voting to not burn it all. However it now seems the real choice is between being honest about burning the town down, and lying about it.

    Th solution to the problem of congress abrogating its authority is not as difficult or thorny as you make it out to be, I repeat from last year DuVerger’s Law is not immutable.

    As to the issue of prosecuting Snowden I admit I come at this from a slightly different tack than Adam does since I am vehemently opposed to government having a right to secrecy, but I think on this issue one need not share my view to believe Snowden is a hero. Azkyroth and Adam have done a spectacular job of dismantling your argument without making the same assumptions I do.

  • Figs

    I’m at a loss for where my argument has been dismantled, unless you mean the part where Azkyroth compared me to a genocide-enabler. I say that the problem of congress abrogating its oversight authority is thorny because of the difficulties involved in dealing with classified information, and the norms that have led to excessive deference to the executive in this arena over the last few decades. Not because the solution is particularly difficult. Just because the environment around it has made it practically difficult.
    I’m interested in which pieces of my argument you think have been thoroughly dismantled, since you didn’t really say. And as for your having had a hard time not reading my post smugly, your response indicates that you weren’t really successful, if you were actually making that attempt.

  • Jason Wexler

    I will certainly concede as has been amply pointed out in another part of this thread that Azkyroth is often prone to making crass ad hominem attacks, and that you’re absolutely right, that comparing you to a genocide-enabler is certainly out of line and not part of what has dismantled your argument. However as is often the case with Azkyroth inside of his vitriol is the kernel of a good point, in this case it’s the idea that we can’t exercise electoral oversight on issues of secrecy, if we don’t have knowledge about how those issues are being abused (or not). Scrolling down through this particular discussion I have yet to see you even attempt a response to that point. I can understand choosing not to continue in the discussion if you felt you were being unfairly attacked, but the point remains that it is difficult for people who like you and Adam believe in a legitimate government interest in secrecy to, have an informed vote about the issue as long as you are in the dark. Adam solves the problem by acknowledging the value of whistle blowers and that, that is what Snowden has done, I don’t have the problem since I reject the idea of a legitimate government interest in secrecy, however you haven’t explained how you would address it. To use Azkyroth’s phrasing; accepting the possibility that I am making a pattern matching error, I would extrapolate that if you have a solution, it seems to be “make use of the whistle blower as a voter but support their persecution (not a typo) in deference to respecting the rule of law”, which would have effect of discouraging the whistle blowers.

    I think you are being somewhat myopic in your analysis of congressional abrogation of authority, it is hardly the case that this one issue is the only one where congress is deferring to the other branches of government to govern. When I talked about congressional abrogation of authority I was speaking more generally, and acknowledging this issue to be only the most recent example.

    Now for my big ironic reveal… as much as I am opposed to government secrecy and as much as I believe the NSA is lying about how useful these programs have been (which in its own irony: statistically speaking, isn’t very useful), I don’t believe the government is currently doing anything unseemly with the data that we as citizens have to be very worried about. The caveat to that is a “yet”. The reason to be opposed to these kinds of programs and to be thankful for whistle blowers exposing them is that even if they aren’t being abused right now, they create a precedent which allows for them to be abused in the future. I think we out to ourselves and our descendents to prevent the rise of a totalitarian state, so that they don’t have the onus to overthrow one, especially one in which communication with other resisters would be night impossible.

  • Figs

    Youre using a funny definition of the word “crime”. The fact that you don’t like a law doesn’t make it not a law, and breaking that law is still, by definition, a crime. You’re using it in some moral sense, which might have a valid meaning, but results in needless ambiguity. Words still mean things.

  • Figs

    Manning has certainly been treated deplorably. You have no disagreement on that. But that does not mean that he ought to have simply been allowed to walk. He was entrusted with classified national security information, given full knowledge of the consequences of disclosing that information, and decided to do it anyway. Again, this is not to justify his specific treatment, which has been shameful.

  • Figs

    I don’t believe I ever said that making something classified should make it inviolate. I don’t understand what that’s meant to be a response to. I’ve said at least twice in this thread that congressional oversight procedures are laughable at this point, and must be beefed up. But I’d be interested in what specifically you mean about clapper and Alexander, and which statements you’re referring to.

  • Figs

    I think that oversight is a thorny problem, but I accept that these problems are handled through the actions of elected representatives, not through some as-yet-unnamed exercise on the part of “us” that is somehow separate from that. You’d likely argue that we need to have adequate information about some of these classified things our representatives are voting on, in order to properly assess their performance and exercise our vote. I understand that, and for the most part I agree. But the government was constructed for the branches to have their own prerogatives and to strain against each other. This dynamic’s absence is part of the problem here.

    I guess I have sort of a counter factual question for you. Lets say you get more transparency like you desire, but all of the candidates ultimately disagree with your position and leave in place these programs, and give them the further imprimatur of law. What then?

  • Figs

    Also, one more question. Could you explain the causal mechanism from what Snowden did to your more preferred version of the state? Like, step by step how you imagine that would go down?

  • Jason Wexler

    I am opposed to secrecy, I would argue there is no legitimate interest for government to be classifying anything.

    There are lots of things our government was constructed to do that I find absolutely abhorrent, among my many radical positions I am in favor of abolishing the 1787 Constitution and replacing it with something entirely new not at all modeled on it. So I am not particularly interested in the theoretical at least in the dynamic tension between the branches of government.

    As a practical matter I have no better answer than anyone else. It’s rather cynical but given that my primary position is that our governmental system is so broken and undesirable as to need be entirely replaced, I am not sure I can offer up more mundane “patches” to improve or maintain the system until we can replace it. That seems like an exercise in sophistry to me.

    In the context of your counter-factual, if my position was such a minority position that no political candidates of any party supported them, and the American people continued to elect candidates who disagree with me; I would accept the fact that my position is an extreme outlier (as I already do), and then continue to be a nagging voice. Hoping that somewhere along the line I am converting just enough someones to my position that after I am gone there will be other nagging voices, until such time that we finally can change the system in the future. Either that or throw my hands up in despair and hide in a hole. I recognize that the logical response to the situation you set up for me is open revolt, but I simply lack the temperament to endorse that idea, plus it would go against my principal of nonviolent action.

    To save us from two ongoing conversations back and forth I would like to respond to your question below in this comment as well. When you ask about the causal mechanism from Snowdens action to more transparency are you asking for a theoretical one, or one which is practical enough to occur in our real world? On the pragmatic side I will concede there is probably no chance any good developing because of Snowdens actions, again I am being cynical. On the theoretical side I would argue that his actions alert the people to a wrong, they become incensed and more politically active, they pay more attention to the positions that candidates take and how elected officials actually vote, the vote in a new political regimen over the next two cycles and that new government institutes the new policies that the people prefer.

  • Wayne F.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/08/nsa-boundless-informant-global-datamining

    Clapper:
    At a hearing of the Senate intelligence committee In March this year, Democratic senator Ron Wyden asked James Clapper, the director of national intelligence: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

    “No sir,” replied Clapper.

    Alexander:
    At a congressional hearing in March last year, Alexander denied point-blank that the agency had the figures on how many Americans had their electronic communications collected or reviewed. Asked if he had the capability to get them, Alexander said: “No. No. We do not have the technical insights in the United States.” He added that “nor do we do have the equipment in the United States to actually collect that kind of information”.

  • Azkyroth

    But please not people, not unless you’re sure that you no longer want to treat them as someone worth ever having a real conversation with.

    Perhaps I have reasons for placing that threshold somewhere different than you do?

  • Azkyroth

    Yes, because being blatantly condescending and infantilizing while “technically” adhering to the letter of no-personal-attacks is so much more productive.

  • Figs

    Just to be clear, I don’t ask hypotheticals of you to try to back you into a corner. I’m interested in probing the edges of what you think, that’s all. You and I have some fundamental differences that aren’t going to be bridged (like you not thinking there is any legitimate reason for government secrecy), and that’s fine. As for myself, I think as far as basic principles we probably don’t disagree too much. We just have a pretty big gulf between us on how to get there. But I think it’s more on the practical vs idealistic divide (and that’s not to deride idealism, just to have a way of expressing it).
    My argument is more with people who want to claim adherence to the constitution (obviously doesn’t include you!), but want to lionize someone breaking laws that are apparently legal under the government created by that constitution. I think it’s a bigger gulf than many of them have dealt with, and which you deal with by not having any special adherence to the constitution. Personally, I don’t have any special adherence to the constitution, and I gag a little bit every time someone invokes “what the founders would have thought” (unless its “holy shit airplanes”). But I don’t think rewriting things from the ground up is anywhere near possible, so my practical side takes over on a day to day basis.

  • Jason Wexler

    As a pragmatic matter, I don’t think its possible either.

  • Figs

    What’s the it in that sentence?

  • Jason Wexler

    Sorry…. rewriting things from the ground up.

  • Wayne F.

    My point, in referencing the Manning example, is to reinforce the efficacy of Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong. To EFFECTIVELY demonstrate the injustice in the surveillance laws in question, means among other things to avoid the fate of Manning – who suffered the denial of his right to fairly defend himself.
    (I wasn’t in this instance pointing to the deplorable treatment he also received, but thank you for adding that.)

    It’s hypocritical for the American authorities – and the defenders of their behaviour – to demand dissidents “play fair” when they so clearly do not. Why on EARTH should Snowden stay and suffer the Manning injustices, indignities and inhumanities?

  • Figs

    For one thing, Manning is subject to the UCMJ as a member of the military, which is stricter than the civilian justice system in ways I’m not fully aware of. Snowden would necessarily be treated differently just on that count.

  • David Simon

    Which reasons are those?

  • Figs

    I think Alexander’s statement is probably weasel-worded enough for him to squeeze out of, but you’re right, Clapper’s statement looks to be pretty incontrovertibly false, unless they’re parsing the word “collect” in a way that only means information is collected once it’s actually dug into and reviewed by an analyst.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Why pardon someone who has done nothing wrong?

  • http://www.robinlionheart.com/ Robin Lionheart

    “If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure we’re abiding by the Constitution, then we’re going to have some problems here.”

    That was true: The Obama administration has shown that we, indeed, cannot trust the executive branch, nor trust Congress and federal judges to uphold the Constitution. So, indeed, we’re going to have some problems here.

  • Orange Lada

    I’m with you – jury nullification all the way.

  • Demonhype

    Our country has a history of taking illegal actions that violate constitutional rights and just DECLARING them legal and then making legislation around them. Well, since the eighties anyway. That seems to be when they started just outright making proclamations that their criminal activity was totally lawful.

    Here’s the thing about this: It isn’t that we agree or disagree with something and that makes it legal or illegal–it’s that the government was absolutely doing something illegal and unconstitutional and has been simply declaring whatever illegal and unconstitutional thing they want to do as being totes legal and constitutional, cuz they sed so, ya know? And then trying to silence anyone who points out their illegal and unconstitutional actions by criminalizing the exposing of their own criminal activity. They’ve been helping all the Big Businesses with this too, if you’ve been paying attention. It’s becoming a criminal offense to expose a crime–at least, if the criminal in question is the government or at least fabulously wealthy.

    So this is backwards. Just because the government creates a law that is illegal and unconstitutional and declares it legal and constitutional and you agree with it, doesn’t make it legal and constitutional.

  • Demonhype

    Too many stupid, putrid RWA cowards in this country right now for anything to make sense. They’ll sign away their very souls if you can promise to keep them safe–and it doesn’t even have to be a real promise! The real addiction in America is security theater.

  • Demonhype

    Which is what they want–they are doing their best to criminalize anyone exposing their criminal behaviors. Come on, those two guys in Steubenville get a slap on the wrist, but the person who helped expose the crime to the point where it was prosecuted as such could face ten years in prison for “hacking” “crimes”. The power structure can see people waking up to its crimes and its abuses of power, and they’re running scared. And they’re making as much anti-whistleblowing legislation as they can, supported by various useful idiots who have been convinced that whistleblowing is something other than what it is, and that actual whistleblowers are just dangerous criminals.

    And before anyone gets all whiny on me about calling names and not being sweetness, sunshine, and kitten farts, remember that “useful idiot” is a historical term with a definition, not a general insult. And there are many such “useful idiots” in America right now, helping to prop up both abuses of power AND the criminalization of anyone who dares expose those abuses, due to their authoritarian cowardice. And they are ushering in a police state because of their desire to snuggle in their warm security-theater blankie, believing devoutly that it is keeping them safe from all the boogie men.

  • Demonhype

    They DECLARED their crimes to be legal, and now you’re seriously expecting us to respect the legality of their crimes? You don’t get to just define your illegal behavior as legal BECAUSE you’re the government, not in America anyway. This isn’t a divine-right monarchy, after all.

  • Demonhype

    So how the hell do we change things, if we’re prohibited by law from knowing what evil things are going down that need changing, and if people like you are okay with the declaration of the government that to make the voting public AWARE of the things that need changing is a criminal act–and that somehow making people aware of a powerful group committing criminal acts and abusing its power is “not” whistleblowing and therefore “not” moral? How do “we the people” change a damned thing if we’re not legally allowed to know anything at all?

  • Demonhype

    Ya know, Azkyroth, I seriously doubt that this guy even has any answers? It sounds like he thinks that while there are “things” that we need to change, and that if the government declares something off-limits it should be subject to increased scrutiny, he feels that there are already ample protections in place–so I don’t believe he thinks anything needs to be done, and thinks that everything is as it should be and anything that isn’t will be sorted out nice and fair–behind the closed government doors, and without the meddling of “the people”. I don’t believe he really thinks we need to do anything, and we should just continue to wallow in ignorance and trust our Government and Corporate Overlords to always do what is in our best interests. Authority is Always Right, you know.

    Seriously, this is one of the things that was going wrong in our government, and he thinks it was absolutely wrong for it to be exposed. He seems to argue that anything the government declares to be necessary must be necessary. I don’t believe for a second he really thinks there is anything wrong with the systems we have or that we should make any serious effort to change laws that are wrong, because the only way we can even have a discussion about the things that need to be changed, much less do a single solitary thing about it, is when a hero like Snowden or Manning pulls the damn invisibility cloak away from those abuses and those illegal laws. He feels that pulling the invisibility cloak back is morally wrong and dangerous and should be illegal, so I don’t believe his claims to be siding with us on any level.

    I’m reminded of Greta Christina’s “why are atheists so angry”, when she pointed out that anger is the primary component of every successful social change movement, and that to insist an oppressed group stop being angry and be “nice” is to disarm them completely–and that the oppressor knows this. You can’t claim to sympathize with social justice movements, like those for blacks or women or gays, while telling them not to be so “angry” and “strident” and to stop speaking up so much. To tell those groups to lay down their most effective weapon is to oppose them completely. It’s concern-trolling. I think there is a parallel here.

  • Figs

    You know, you could have responded to me and actually asked me what I think. But I imagine its more comfortable your way.

  • Figs

    Do you know how laws work?

  • Figs

    We need to have more robust oversight of secret operations by congress and the courts. But if you concede (as I do) that there is a place for secrecy in national security operations, then you cannot simply let every holder of a security clearance decide what should and shouldn’t be classified.

  • Figs

    So if people ask for a law like the patriot act, and that law is enacted as intended, what then? Because that’s essentially what happened here. People expressed their will, through their elected representatives, and programs like the one we’re discussing are the outgrowth of those decisions. I’m not saying its the right decision, but its not at all clear to me that it represents either an illegal or unconstitutional incursion, as those words are operatively defined.

  • Figs

    Just so you know, I agree almost entirely with this. I think a lot of what we buy ourselves is actually security theater, and the marginal returns in capacity to make us safer are either very small, nonexistent, or potentially negative. But since you didn’t ask, you will probably be able to go back to the version of me you made up earlier.

  • Figs

    The operative definition of constitutional is what the constitution says, coupled with a couple hundred years of judicial precedent, to the point where some schmo reading the document might not have all he or she needs to judge how these provisions have been adjudicated. The Supreme Court is not often unanimous, so there are disagreements on what is constitutional and what isn’t. You don’t just get to declare it.

  • Figs

    Just so you know, this came out today:

    http://livewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/entry/snowden-says-he-took-job-with-contractor-to

    “My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked,” Snowden said. “That is why I accepted that position about three months ago.”

    Snowden took the job with the express purpose of siphoning out classified information to release later.

  • Azkyroth

    Insults in parenthetical asides are not “ad hominem.” The Ad Hominem fallacy refers to the use of an insult as a premise. I assume it’s merely misused here, because this misconception IS unfortunately common and co-opting the term “ad hominem” to mean “insult” and attempting to employ an artificial distinction between “ad hominem attack” and “Ad Hominem fallacy” as a bait-and-switch tactic to attempt to bestow the emotional response and connotations of the latter on the former is disingenuous at best.

    And while I’ll try to honor Adam’s request, I make no apologies for reacting viscerally to authoritarianism and its apologetics. Frankly, the world could use a bit less “well, let’s discuss the good points over tea” when it comes to these sorts of things.

  • Azkyroth

    Define “work.”

  • Figs

    I was addressing the assertion that the government doesn’t get to say what’s legal and what’s not. In fact, this is pretty much exactly what the government, in its interlocking parts, does.

  • Azkyroth

    The government explicitly has no authority to declare “legal” policies which conflict with the forthright interpretation of the constitution. Unforthright (and outright tortured, including torture-permitting – OH NOES AD HOMINOMS) interpretations of the constitution are a bug, not a feature.

  • Figs

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you here, except to say that forthright interpretation depends often on the reader, doesn’t it? Is there anything in a forthright reading of the text of the First Amendment that would imply money is speech, or that slander is not protected, or that shouting fire in a crowded theater or incitement are not protected? The operative meaning of the First Amendment lies not so much in a forthright reading of the text alone, but in that text coupled with the years and years of judicial precedent that have laid down what that means in the context of society, whether or not you agree with that precedent.

    Similarly, the Second Amendment offers several apparently forthright interpretations that contradict with each other. Do we ignore the preamble and just focus on “the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”, or do we count the preamble as integral to the amendment, and in the context of not having a citizen militia as our main defense force, perceive the mandate of the amendment differently?

    The Fourth Amendment hinges largely on the definition of “unreasonable,” and that definition has been given some strictness by the courts over the years. Please don’t misinterpret me, this is not an attempt on my part to say that what’s under discussion is absolutely “reasonable” under that standard, because I think the process for judicial review, given invocation of state secrets and procedures about standing in the case of secret programs, is very, very flawed. I’m only talking about the fact that the operative definition of the Constitution, in practice, is not just a forthright reading of the words on the page, even if such a “forthright” reading were limited to one interpretation in every case, which it’s not.

  • Figs

    I’ve got no disrespect for you, and you obviously are very passionate about your position. That’s fine, and we agree on a whole hell of a lot of it. But because we disagree on something does not make me an apologist for authoritarianism.


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