For those who do not already know, let me give some brief background on my experience with UScryptologist in the Navy which meant that our ultimate reporting authority was the National Security Agency. I'm fairly well versed in some of the laws governing signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection, which is the function of the NSA. Obviously, I have been out of the loop for a while now, but I can imagine that the laws haven't changed much in the last seven years.
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So do we praise Edward Snowden or sentence him to die? This is a tough scenario, and anyone who can say how they feel about this without taking at least 15 minutes to really, really think about the particulars of it all has not thought about it hard enough.
First off, Snowden has indeed violated the NDA (non-disclosure agreement) which he had to sign in order to obtain his clearance. He has revealed the existence of a Top Secret SIGINT program, and doing so carries some heavy penalties. But does that count him as a traitor? I don't think so.
Although he revealed the existence of this program and its function, he did not reveal any details that would actually endanger our national security. He did not reveal how the intelligence is collected, he did not reveal the persons responsible for creating and implementing the program, and he certainly did not damage the NSA's ability to collect valuable intelligence data from our enemies.
Also, Snowden did not reveal this information with the intent of aiding the enemies of the United States. He wasn't paid for the information, and technically he did not engage in espionage. He did not function as a spy, which is someone who knowingly deceives a nation's government in order to obtain intelligence to serve the purposes of his masters.
No, Edward Snowden had a crisis of conscience. He revealed the existence of this program because he believed that it violated the law. What law you might ask? Well, SIGINT is governed by what is called the United States Signals Intelligence Directive, or USSID for short. There is a particular USSID, USSID 18 to be exact, that details the restrictions placed on SIGINT collection against US citizens.
In my day--all of seven years ago--collecting intelligence off of a US citizen was strictly prohibited--like, you're taking-a-trip-to-Ft.-Leavenworth prohibited. The *only* way we were ever allowed to collect on a US citizen--and this never, ever happened on my ship--was if we obtained a USSID 9 waiver. The USSID 9 waiver is granted only in circumstances when it is believed that a particular US citizen has direct ties to the enemy, and that citizen poses a real national security risk/threat. There are some other circumstances that warrant collection against a US citizen, but it's probably not legal for me to talk about it any further.
Suffice to say, the circumstances surrounding the permission of collection against a US citizen are extremely extenuating. At no point were we allowed to collect anything against anyone without approval from NSA.
I think it would be reasonable to assume that Snowden knew about this, and this is likely why he had the crisis of conscience. Sure, NSA is the authority that grants the waiver, but are we supposed to believe that the entire nation now gets the waiver?
I understand why the NSA thinks the program is a good idea. They say that it's only "meta-data," and that this could potentially strengthen national security. Let me remind everyone that there has not been a large scale terrorist attack on US soil at the hands of Al Qaeda since September 11, 2001. Yes, the Tsarnaev brothers bombed the Boston Marathon, but that was a result of the FBI completely dropping the ball--not a result of intelligence collection gaps at NSA.
The information gathered from this program may seem pointless. We might think "who cares if they know I had a 20 minute phone conversation"? This whole thing represents a larger problem to me than its actual practical application, because in all honesty, the information is too vast even for NSA to put it to proper use.
The problem that I have is that although we've all suspected this for some time, this is a clear indication that many people in government and its agencies don't give a damn for the law. Their actions are indicative of individuals who believe themselves to be above the law. Edward Snowden brought to light an affront to our privacy, and to me it is just a step towards a less-free society.
We as Americans should be thanking Snowden instead of condemning him. He had the guts to follow his conscience and expose something he saw as a breech of moral and ethical standards. But of course, if extradited he will disappear forever. He will be punished for whistle blowing on the real law breakers, while the true perpetrators of injustice will continue on about their lives. According to Albert Camus, a patriot is someone who wishes his country to live up to the highest standard of righteousness and justice. If that's true, then I can only see Snowden as a patriot.
We shouldn't be asking whether or not Snowden should go to jail. Instead, we should be asking how many congressmen should lose their seats in the mid-terms. We should be asking who at the NSA should be prosecuted for violating their own damn directives.
But these questions won't be asked because they are too difficult to answer, and quite frankly, the American people are too damn scared of the answers. With a people so frightened and yet so apathetic, is it any wonder our government officials believe themselves to be above the law?