Is Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor? I don't care. You read right: I don't give a whit about the man who exposed two sweeping U.S. online surveillance programs, nor do I worry much about his verdict in the court of public opinion.
Why? Because it is the wrong question. The Snowden narrative matters mostly to White House officials trying to deflect attention from government overreach and deception, and to media executives in search of an easy storyline to serve a celebrity-obsessed audience.
For the rest of us, the questions seem to be:
- Are the two programs revealed by Snowden legal and constitutional?
- Are the programs effective? The government says yes, but most Americans don't trust government. The Obama administration claims National Security Agency spying helped foil a plot in New York, but that claim has been convincingly disputed.
- What else is the government doing to invade our privacy? Until a few days ago, paranoids were people who claimed Washington had cast a vast electronic net over our communications. Who isn't a bit paranoid now?
- Why did the U.S. government for years debunk what they called a myth about the National Security Agency seizing electronic data from millions of Americans?
- Why did the leader of the U.S. intelligence community mislead Congress in March by answering a question about the program in the "least untruthful manner" -- a phrase that would make George Orwell cringe.
- Why do Democratic lawmakers who criticized President Bush for exploiting the post-9/11 Patriot Act now defend President Obama for curbing civil liberties?
- Why do Republicans who defended Bush now chastise Obama for ruthlessly fighting terrorists?
- Rather than fierce oversight, why did the White House and congressional leaders restrict full knowledge of the programs to a few elites, and stage, for the rest of Congress, Potemkin briefings?
- Why does a secret federal court almost always side with the government's requests to seize information.
- Why didn't the president find a way before the leaks to tell the public in general terms what he was doing and why? Obama ran on a pledge of government transparency, opposed Bush-era surveillance tactics, and denounced the "false choice" between security and liberty.
No sane American would deny the president and the national security community the best tools to fight a fast-evolving and shadowy enemy. It would be foolish to demand full disclosure of programs that require secrecy. And most Americans, according to polls, are open to trading some privacy for security.
But before perpetuating and immortalizing the Surveillance State, we need to remember that the precedents set today apply to the next president -- and the ones that follow, perhaps men and women who aren't as dedicated to democratic institutions as both Bush and Obama are.
It would help if the Obama administration would stop misleading the public, eroding trust in government that is already at record lows. Four stories today suggest how badly the truth has been victimized.
Scott Shane and Jonathan Weisman of the New York Times documented how intelligence officials for years have denied the existence of programs revealed by Snowden: "Disclosures on N.S.A. Surveillance Put Awkward Light on Previous Denials."
"Awkward light" is a polite way of describing a lie.
Glenn Kessler slapped three Pinocchios on James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence who spoke a least-untruthful way: "Debates Over NSA Should be Free of Semantic Muddling."
Semantic muddling is a polite way of describing – well, you get it.
Jack Shafer of Reuters wrote an insightful piece that puts Snowden's actions into context with the government's self-serving leaks. "… He's done in the macro what the national security establishment does in the micro every day of the week to manage, manipulate and influence ongoing policy debates," Shafer wrote.
Finally, syndicated liberal columnist David Sirota challenged the views of "Permanent Washington" in an analysis arguing that NSA's actions are illegal and unconstitutional.
He called the Snowden case "a commentary on how political self-interest and partisanship now trumps everything else – even the law of the land."
Love him or hate him, we all owe Snowden our thanks for forcing upon the nation an important debate. But the debate shouldn't be about him. It should be about the gnawing questions his actions raised from the shadows.
In the end, fear and politics likely will prevail, as it has in America's past. Washington elites will close ranks to protect the Surveillance State, to trample out transparency and to mislead the public. Maybe we can talk first?