US NEWS & WORLD REPORT 09/16/16
By Michael Shank
Patriots come in all shapes and sizes, not just in American uniforms. Laudable service to your country can, and should, include caring for the “least of these,” protecting the environment and volunteering locally. Those are all equally important ways one can perform a public service and serve fellow Americans.
The case of Edward Snowden, and the campaign launched this week to get President Barack Obama to pardon him before leaving the White House, is no different. Most Americans know very little about the man behind the 2013 whistle-blowing on the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. For example, most Americans don’t know that Snowden first pursued an obvious course of “country first” by enlisting in the Army.
Snowden wanted to fight in the Iraq War because, in his words, he felt like he “had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression.” Coming from a family with extensive government service, and deeply moved by the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Snowden’s early patriotism was apparent.
That hasn’t changed for him. Snowden cares a great deal about our American democracy. He reiterated that this week, saying, “I love my country” live from Russia, during the #PardonSnowden campaign launch by the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The campaign comes as one of the biggest defenders of secret NSA surveillance, the House intelligence committee, tries to assassinate Snowden’s character (one of the oldest plays in the anti-whistleblower book) with spurious claims of exaggeration, and Oliver Stone releases his sympathetic film “Snowden” nationwide.
It’s critical that the American public and policymakers hear this call loudly and clearly: Snowden wants to come home. To America. And we should let him.
In performing a “public service,” to quote former Attorney General Eric Holder’s take on his data dump, Snowden wasn’t committing espionage (though the Obama Administration has charged him under a World War I-era law, the Espionage Act). He was promoting democracy, fitting for someone who considers whistle-blowing “democracy’s safeguard of last resort, the one on which we rely when all other checks and balances have failed and the public has no idea what’s going on behind closed doors.”
This all illustrates how ill-equipped American laws remain in tackling 21st-century realities and illicit, whistle-blown activity by the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Defense Intelligence Agency. We’re completely out of touch. It’s not World War I anymore.
Most importantly, it’s clear that as citizens and as patriots we are grossly unprotected. Facing a fair and public trial is impossible when the White House or the Department of Justice hang “Espionage Act” over our heads. There is no admissible defense on behalf of the public interest. That’s a problem. And it’s evident something else is at stake here.
As the script of Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” film intimated, it’s not about terrorism – it’s about economic and social control. Since adversaries already know what’s happening in the war zone (which Snowden’s data dump also revealed), this is about shutting down patriotic citizens’ ability to keep America accountable. And it’s obvious, now, that the White House will use any means necessary – including a law from 1917 – to do so.
In fact, Obama has used the Espionage Act more than any previous president, which shows how eager this White House is to keep secrets, obfuscate transparency and create fear among future whistleblowers. This is hardly American and far from democratic.
While some Americans may support Obama’s approach and be fine with secrecy, non-transparency, and the massive domestic and foreign surveillance conducted by the NSA – of even our closest allies – I am not. This isn’t about my disinclination to be watched, listened to or spied on by my government. I’ve always assumed this was happening given my public critique of U.S. foreign policy. This is much bigger than that.
The NSA, and its intelligence cohort, is undermining allegiances and alliances near and far, sowing cynicism and skepticism in official matters of state, and spreading distrust throughout our democracy. Systematic and structural suppression of dissent, online and in person, physical and psychological, of which there is clear precedent in Washington, should not be a part of America’s political DNA. Any attempt to course correct, then, must be understood as a public and patriotic service.
This is exactly what founding father James Madison was getting at when cautioning, roughly 100 years before the Espionage Act came into force, that “a popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” We have made a farce out of privacy and a tragedy in our treatment of whistleblowers. But we can do better. Take heed, America, and pardon patriotism.
Michael Shank teaches at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. He has worked on the ground in the Middle East, Horn of Africa, Central and South Asia and Southeast Asia. Between 2009 and 2013, he served as a senior adviser on foreign policy in Congress.