The lesson in the Edward Snowden saga

Friday, June 14, 2013

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Mr Edward Snowden has certainly stoked the fire of patriotism in the United States, especially after his strident defence of his release of sensitive government information.

Essentially, Americans are split on whether Mr Snowden's action of telling the world that Washington has been secretly collecting phone and Internet records is treason, or makes him a hero for adhering to the principle that the public has a right to know.

Legislators are the ones mostly of the view that Mr Snowden has committed an egregious wrong -- the ultimate political crime, as one commentary describes it. Mr John Boehner, the speaker of the House, and Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Intelligence Committee, are two of the more powerful voices that have labelled Mr Snowden a traitor.

We can understand the views on both sides. After all, people expect that their privacy will be respected. However, one cannot discount the responsibility of the American Government to ensure the safety of the people who voted them into office. That effort obviously requires the Administration to monitor conversations and other forms of communication that would, no doubt, infringe on people's privacy.

Interestingly, a Pew Research Centre poll conducted immediately after news emerged of the US Government's actions found that only 41 per cent of Americans were opposed to the National Security Agency getting secret court orders to track the phone calls of millions of Americans to investigate terrorism.

It is understandable that the majority of those polled believe that having their conversations monitored is a small price to pay for their safety. For there is no doubt that the scars of the horrible September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States are deep.

Mr Snowden's action, therefore, would be regarded by those Americans as providing a threat to their security. However, the jury is still out on whether he is actually guilty of treason.

Based on what we have been told so far, he has breached a confidentiality condition of his employment with the US Government which, we gather, could see him being charged, under the Espionage Act, with disclosure of classified information.

If he is extradited to the US and is taken before a court we expect that he will continue to argue that his only motive was "to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them".

Whether that argument will work in his favour is yet to be seen, for unlike the provisions of the Whistleblower Act which protects Government workers who report corruption, what Mr Snowden exposed was neither fraudulent nor criminal.

The lesson in all this for the US Government, we feel, is that it should have, from the beginning, made known that it was engaged in this activity. After all, based on the Pew Research Centre survey, the Administration would not have faced major opposition from the public on this issue.

It's a lesson that other governments would do well to learn.




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