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Before the U.S. government and the mainstream media engage in the customary character assassination of truth-teller Edward Snowden -- a fate endured by Pfc. Bradley Manning and others -- let's get on the record the motives he gave for releasing the trove of information on intrusive eavesdropping by the National Security Agency.
Why would someone like Snowden, a 29-year-old employee of national-security contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, jeopardize what he calls "a very comfortable life" in order to blow the whistle on the U.S. government's abuse of power?
Snowden, who was living in Hawaii with a promising career and a salary said to be about $200,000 a year, told the London Guardian: "I'm willing to sacrifice all of that because I can't in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom, and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're now building."
He added that he wanted to reveal the "federation of secret law, unequal pardon, and irresistible executive powers that rule the world I love. ... What they're doing poses an existential threat to democracy."
Snowden enlisted in the Army in 2003 and began training to join the Special Forces. He told the Guardian: "I wanted to fight in the Iraq war because I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression." He quickly found, though, that, in his words, "Most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone." Snowden broke both legs in a training accident and was discharged.
In several key respects, the experiences of Snowden resemble those of Bradley Manning. Both took the enlisted person's oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." As a condition of employment, both signed a promise not to disclose classified information; and both witnessed at close hand flagrant abuses that their consciences told them they needed to expose.
All this required them to go back on their secrecy promise, in order to achieve a greater good. What they were able to understand, and act on, is what ethicists call a "supervening value." [See Daniel C. Maguire's The Manning Trial's Real Defendant" regarding the moral balancing act between democracy's need for information and government insistence on secrecy.]
It didn't require a law degree for Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to understand how the Bush and Obama administrations were playing fast and loose with key provisions of the Constitution of the United States.
"Safety" Before Constitution
As for the current President, he seems to have been editing the oath he took to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." Few caught it when he preached on national security on May 23, but Greg Sargent noted in the Washington Post that Obama defined his commander-in-chief role as requiring him to tilt toward national security and away from civil liberties -- clearly prioritizing the latter out of a warped zero-sum mindset.
Obama said "constitutional issues" must be "weighed" against "my responsibility to protect the American people." Got that? He was even more explicit last Friday about how he sees these choices. "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience," Obama said. "We're going to have to make some choices as a society. ... There are trade-offs involved."
Regarding his priorities, he said: "When I came into this office I made two commitments ... Number one, to keep the American people safe; and Number two, to uphold the Constitution. And that includes what I consider to be a constitutional right to privacy and an observance of civil liberties."
Thanks for tacking on that last sentence, Mr. President, but your defense of the incredibly wide and intrusive programs -- alien to Fourth Amendment protections -- strain credulity well beyond the breaking point. You lost me when you described the recently revealed eavesdropping programs that suck up data on billions of our communications daily as "very narrowly circumscribed" and "very focused."
In July 2008, when Congress passed and President Bush signed a law making government eavesdropping easier and granting immunity to telecommunications companies, which had already violated, together with the Bush administration, our Fourth Amendment rights, this seemed to me a watershed. What possible incentive would the telecoms now have for abiding by the Constitution, I asked myself.
When I heard that then-Sen. Barack Obama had flip-flopped on this vote -- as he was burnishing his national security "cred" for his White House run -- I wrote him an open letter. He had said he would vote against the bill, before he decided to vote for this major revision of the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.