What the National Security Agency (NSA) has done in spying on Americans is reprehensible—and what Edward Snowden has done is worse.
The government is entitled to act against someone only when there is a valid reason to believe that he poses a physical threat to others. Once such evidence exists, of course, the government must act to remove that threat. But such action must be delimited. It must be aimed at specific people, based on specific, objective evidence. The government has no authority to simply cast a boundless net over us, in the hope that some guilty people will be snared. Even in wartime, when the scope of government’s powers must expand, the rights of the individual remain inviolable. The government cannot throw everyone in jail, on the belief that there may be foreign spies among us.
The NSA, however, has been proceeding on the opposite premise. It has been conducting indiscriminate spying. It has been collecting and storing vast streams of data, including records taken from phone companies and internet providers, in the hope that something nefarious will turn up.
This policy is essentially no different from one in which the police are allowed to barge into your home at whim, hoping to find something incriminating. The fact that you may have nothing to hide does not mitigate the injustice, or the harm. The harm lies in the sheer fact that your right to be free from force—your right to keep your private activities private—is being abrogated. If, for instance, trespassers were allowed to roam your property at will, the harm does not fundamentally come from the fact that they may damage your property. Even if they don’t—even if they delicately tiptoe across your backyard and leave no lasting imprints behind—you have been seriously harmed: your rights have been taken away from you. And every violation of rights that a society permits brings us one step closer to unlimited rule by the state.
The NSA has, in effect, been arbitrarily trespassing on your property.
On the other hand, there are surveillance measures by the NSA that are perfectly legitimate. If, for example, someone is known to be involved in terrorist activities, all his emails, phone calls and letters should be monitored. It would be a grave dereliction if our government did not take all steps necessary to track the communications of known terrorists and their abettors. Such monitoring is an act of self-defense. It protects our lives and our freedom, and should be encouraged.
Which brings us to Edward Snowden, who made public classified documents revealing a broad range of spying by the NSA. Was he motivated by a desire to defend the individual’s right to be free from a coercive state—or by a very different desire?
Snowden stole over a million classified documents, the majority of which pertained to NSA spying, not on U.S. citizens but on legitimate targets abroad, from the Taliban to the Iranians. By disclosing the methods used by the NSA, Snowden made it easier for those targets to evade future surveillance.
Snowden wants to portray America as a police state. But he is willing to cozy up to the rulers of actual police states, such as China and Russia. When he fled to Hong Kong, he identified for Chinese officials which of their computers had been penetrated by the NSA. After arriving in Russia, he engaged in a televised propaganda event with its president, the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. To persuade the world how much freer Russian citizens are than Americans, Snowden asked him: “Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?” To which Putin primly replied: “Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law. . . . You have to get a court permission to stalk a particular person. We don’t have a mass system of such interception. And according to our law, it cannot exist.”
In a press conference at the Russian airport, Snowden thanked the nations that had offered him support: “Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human-rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless. By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world.”
Are these the words of someone who values freedom?
Further evidence of Snowden’s ideology can be seen in his choice of a partner-in-crime, Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald is a hard-core leftist, who wrote for the British newspaper The Guardian. He is the journalist to whom Snowden entrusted the secret documents and who became the main conduit for the NSA revelations.
In explaining why Snowden sought refuge abroad, Greenwald declares that in the U.S. “the standard whistle-blower treatment . . . is to put them in a cage for decades and render them incommunicado.” Whereas China—where the Tiananmen Square “whistle-blowers” were summarily eliminated, and where the Internet is censored, with such sites as YouTube and Facebook banned; and Russia—where Putin imprisons his opponents and shuts down the publications and the websites of his critics—are supposedly exemplars of free-flowing information and opinions.
Greenwald regularly speaks at socialist conferences, in condemnation of American “imperialism.” He says: “No event assembles more passionate activism, genuine expertise and provocative insights than the Socialist Conference. . . . What keeps me coming back is how invigorating and inspiring it is to be in the midst of such diverse and impressive activists.” Here are the titles of some of the “inspiring” sessions held at the latest conference he attended:
- The Return of Marx: new horizons for the left
- The Marxist theory of imperialism
- In Defense of Lenin
- How can the U.S. empire be defeated?
- Why we are Trotskyists
This is the man Snowden designated to make the decisions about which documents should be published and which shouldn’t. This is the man whom Snowden told: “[U]se your journalistic judgment to only publish those documents that the public should see and that can be revealed without harm to any innocent people.” That is, the man who undoubtedly regards the people working in America’s surveillance network as morally guilty—the man who views them, and anyone who supports them, as oppressive imperialists—is to choose who gets categorized as “innocent.”
By the way, it is no accident that both Snowden and Greenwald are drawn to libertarianism. Snowden praises Ron Paul, the one-time presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party, and has donated money to his campaign. Greenwald says that Paul is “as vigilant a defender of America’s constitutional freedoms . . . as any national figure in some time.” And Greenwald was a keynote speaker at the Cato Institute’s Benefactor Summit in 2008.
The Pakistani jihadist who tried to set off a car bomb in Manhattan’s Times Square in 2010 was, according to Greenwald, simply adopting the policy being implemented by the American government: “[A] desire to exact vengeance for foreign killings on your soil is hardly unique attribute of Pashtun culture. . . . See, for instance, the furious American response to the one-day attack on 9/11.” Echoing Ron Paul’s views, Greenwald claims that Islamic terrorists “are attempting to carry out plots in retaliation for past and ongoing American violence against Muslim civilians, and to deter such future acts.” (Emphasis in original.)
This viewpoint reflects not anti-statism, but standard leftist anti-Americanism. It criticizes our government not for failing to live up to our heritage of individual liberty, but for using force in defense of our liberty—i.e., for deciding that force needs to be employed against the enemies of America.
So the NSA’s domestic spying program should indeed be opposed, on the principle of individual freedom. But it is a principle not held by Snowden and his cohorts.