I knew Edward Snowden.
And he’s not the story.
I knew him as many did. In my time as a massively multiplayer online gamer, I called him guildmate. He was one heck of a gamer.
I had conversations with him on Ventrilo about the game we were playing. But he’s not the story that matters here.
During my eight years working at Cray Inc., the supercomputer company which is a contractor for the NSA, I read every public document I could find about our customer. We called them “No Such Agency.”
I believe the NSA provides a valuable intelligence service that protects our country. However, that capability comes with immense power that could be harmful to liberty if misused.
When Senator Frank Church investigated National Security Agency abuses by the Nixon Administration, he stated it best,
“I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”
The technology that the NSA now wields far exceeds Senator Church’s most excessive dreams of a surveillance state.
Four whistleblowers, William Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe, Thomas Drake, and Edward Snowden each separately risked their careers at the NSA. This is clear proof that their own employees find their activity deeply troubling and likely unconstitutional. Others may be afraid to speak up for fear of losing their income. A federal FISA court has also declared parts of the programs unconstitutional.
Congress and the President should have taken action earlier so that these whistleblowers did not feel the need to go public with potentially risky information.
Having run for Minnesota state office three times, I have learned that people decide what they think based upon narratives. A good story always has better results than merely listing out facts. Every good narrative has both characters and a plot.
Edward Snowden has been releasing shreds of a story without characters while his opponents have created a complete narrative about his personal ambitions. All that government officials must do is to blunt his message is to weaken his credibility.
The media has focused attention on the whistleblower because we all prefer to read stories about people.
Attacking the messenger distracts from the fact that so many public servants felt so strongly about the details of the wiretapping programs that they ended their careers in order to raise a public debate over them.
Officials risk almost nothing while the whistleblowers risk almost everything.
Even if unconstitutional powers are not being abused, one must look beyond our current government to determine whether a program is hostile to liberty. Governments change and leaders change.
When you grant excessive powers even in limited circumstances, it becomes very difficult to take them back or to limit them. This is how many dictatorships came to power throughout history.
I could tell you every detail I know about Snowden and how I feel about his revelations, but it would only serve to further distract from the important questions.
Would you grant our government powers which violate the Constitution if they made us less safe? Recent history makes this seems more likely.
Is the solution to finding a needle in a haystack— adding more hay?
The NSA was so inundated with information before 9/11 that it took them until many days after the attacks to piece together evidence they were already sitting on. As documented in the PBS special, the Spy Factory, they had been tracking the known criminal hijackers all the way across America and yet failed to prevent 9/11 or warn us.
If these measures make us safer, then why did they not work against the Tsarnaevs, whom Russia warned us about? Why was their case dropped? Why did intelligence fail in the Boston bombings?
Does universal eavesdropping make federal law enforcement complacent to real threats and suspicious of innocent Americans?