BROWN: A defender of liberty

Edward Snowden is a hero for informing the public of the government’s violation of constitutional rights

In 1755 Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” These lines have been quoted often since the beginning of the war on terror and during the subsequent changes to the American security apparatus, but I think it applies especially well to the turmoil surrounding Edward Snowden.

In the fall, my fellow columnist Russell Bogue wrote a column condemning Snowden, the man responsible for the security leak that led to the exposure of the NSA’s expansive surveillance programs and many other spying programs conducted by the U.S. government. Bogue deplored calls to praise Snowden as a hero, and criticized the damage Snowden inflicted on our national security through the exposure of classified information. For Bogue, Snowden’s disrespect to the American civil system and flight to avoid consequences make him a coward and a criminal, not a hero.

I can’t disagree with the facts Bogue presents. Snowden did break the law, and he did flee the country to Hong Kong and then Russia. And I agree that allowing moral convictions to outweigh security mandates is a risky precedent to allow and not a good justification for Snowden’s actions. But I would argue that by exposing the gross overreaches of the NSA, including monitoring of private emails and phone messages of private citizens without warrants, Snowden was actually performing his duties as well as he possibly could.

The only oath Snowden ever swore was to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” While he took this oath as a federal employee of the CIA — not his job as a NSA contractor — he never took any other oath afterwards to supersede it, and only had to acknowledge he was aware of laws against exposing classified information. He made the choice to honor his prior oath, and it is a choice we should be thankful for.

It is obvious that the NSA’s surveillance programs violated the constitutional rights of American citizens. A cursory look at just one program Snowden exposed, the data mining program PRISM, shows that private communications of American citizens were intercepted without warrants, in a blatant violation of the right to privacy. By exposing programs like PRISM to the public, Snowden allowed us to defend our constitutional rights, the rights granted by the document he did swear to “support and defend.” While he did “breach the trust of the American government” as stated by Bogue, he did so in service of what the federal government is supposed to serve. Snowden recognized the difference between the government — more specifically, the NSA — and the United States of America, and made a choice based on that distinction. He exposed an unethical program and did what he swore to do for the sake of the American people. And he is a hero because his decision gave the public the chance to hold the NSA and the larger federal government accountable for the violation of citizens’ rights, which will hopefully lead to changes in our approach toward security.

I would point to Franklin’s quote to justify Snowden’s decision. America was founded on the principle that the rights of the individual need to be protected, and that the government was there to serve the people, not intrude on and control their lives, even though this potentially created some risks. These principles were violated by the NSA repeatedly, prioritizing a “little temporary safety” over the “essential liberty” that makes this country special. We should thank Snowden for giving us the chance to start reversing that exchange.

Forrest Brown is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns normally run Thursdays.

Published January 16, 2014 in Opinion

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