At a press conference concerning NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s flight to Russia from Hong Kong, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that “Mr. Snowden’s claim that he is focused on supporting transparency, freedom of the press and protection of individual rights and democracy is belied by the protectors he has potentially chosen — China, Russia, Ecuador, as we’ve seen.”
But that’s pretty rich, coming from the Obama administration. President Obama has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. This is the same administration that monitors reporters, despite — to quote Carney, President Obama’s “transparency, freedom of the press and protection of individual rights and democracy.”
Few would argue that the U.S. government has the right to hold some information secret in the name of national security. The problem begins when what’s held secret is what the government is doing, especially to its own citizens. And the secrecy doesn’t just extend to the citizenry.
The NSA has repeatedly lied to Congress about its surveillance practices. And, as I detailed for FEE, the victims of spying cannot even find out if they’ve been spied on. For instance, the ACLU and Amnesty International sued the government because they suspected they were being wiretapped without a warrant. The suit was unsuccessful: Since they could not find out whether they were being wiretapped, they could not prove harm. Many people have tried to challenge the laws which allow boundless spying. The Obama administration has blocked every lawsuit, citing national security concerns.
If only the people doing the spying are allowed to know who’s being spied on and how, and the administration forcefully stops every constitutional challenge, where does this leave room for oversight?
This frightening situation reveals the speciousness of position — held by politicians as divergent as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. – that Snowden should be prosecuted because he broke the law. If espionage is obtaining information considered secret or confidential without the permission of the holder of the information, all government whistleblowers break the law. Their position also doesn’t address the fact that Snowden is being charged with spying. This is an unnecessarily harsh and rather inappropriate charge for someone who it seems has not gained anything by revealing state secrets. As Ron Paul put it on his Facebook page:
My understanding is that espionage means giving secret or classified information to the enemy. Since Snowden shared information with the American people, his indictment for espionage could reveal (or confirm) that the US Government views you and me as the enemy.
Ideally, all government surveillance techniques and activities would be common knowledge. The threat to liberty of an all-knowing, opaque surveillance state far exceeds the threat to safety of terrorists. You are statistically far, far more likely to be put in prison over something the NSA finds out about you than you are to be killed by a terrorist.
But beyond that, those who would do you harm of any sophistication whatsoever already use encryption methods that are difficult or impossible for the NSA to parse. The likelihood of someone discussing feasible plans to blow up a building doing so over Facebook is slim-to-none.
While complete transparency may be the goal, that is not the country we live in. In this environment (where even Congress is in the dark about spying), if we want any kind of oversight at all, we must protect leakers like Edward Snowden from prosecution.
Cathy Reisenwitz is a D.C.-based writer and political commentator. She runs Sex and the State and writes regularly for Thoughts on Liberty. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Examiner, the Daily Caller and the AFF Free the Future blog. Privacy image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.