Last June, we learned that the U.S. government was spying on Americans. Since then, we have learned much more, such as that the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ communications by Americans has not been essential to preventing terrorist attacks and that the system of oversight for intelligence activities is broken. The NSA and the Obama Administration have misled Congress and the American people, who have likely had their constitutional rights violated.
Indeed, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s classified revelations are the most consequential since the Pentagon Papers—and also the most controversial. But what is the value of his whistleblowing?
Far more attention ought to be focused on the information he revealed and the reforms required. The Snowden disclosures have been a catalyst for a critical national conversation, more oversight and much-needed reforms.
But those who wish to distract from their own failures and to thwart reform are using a familiar tactic of retaliation and subterfuge: Kill the Messenger.
As reported by Foreign Policy, an intelligence committee staffer said, “Snowden has been made out by some people to be a hero. What we need to do is really look at the effect of his leaks and see that what he's done is really harm our country and put citizens at risk. The purpose [of releasing some findings] is to clear the record and show that he’s not a hero.”
And yet, critics have not shown that the disclosures have harmed our country. The press release by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Ranking Member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) does not include any evidence, only their characterizations of a non-public Pentagon report.
But wait, aren’t these the same leaders who pulled the wool over our eyes in the first place? Charged with oversight of intelligence activities, they did not disclose or delimit domestic spying.
Rogers and Ruppersberger have repeatedly made misstatements, if not lies, often in an effort to discredit Snowden. Rogers told George Stephanopoulos on ABC that Snowden “has contacted a foreign country and said, ‘I will sell you classified information for something of value.’” Unfortunately, Stephanopoulos did not question that assertion, and apparently had not read the letter from Snowden to Brazil to which Rogers referred. In that letter, there was no such offer made. Yet, the Rogers falsehood has been oft-repeated in service of the campaign to discredit Snowden and distract from reform.
Both Rogers and President Obama have asserted there were “safe channels” through which Snowden could make legal disclosures. Rogers and President Obama are both wrong. There were no specific protections that would enable Snowden to safely blow the whistle. In fact, Rogers has repeatedly blocked legislation to protect intelligence community whistleblowers.
NSA Director Keith Alexander’s statement to the Senate Intelligence Community that bulk collection programs had prevented 54 terrorist attacks was also wrong. He eventually admitted it was perhaps only one or two. However, the President’s Surveillance Review Group recently reported that the bulk collection of telephony data has been nonessential in preventing terrorist attacks.
With more scrutiny, will these new claims by Rogers and Ruppersberger bear out? Or will these claims, too, turn out to be false? It is absolutely critical that we know if our national security has been damaged. We just can’t take their word for it. Government claims of threats or damage to our national security have lost legitimacy. The President and Congress must make the facts public.
For far too long, claims of national security interests have been used as a predicate for expansive executive power that has harmed our liberties. We, the American people and the media, have been complicit. We’ve fallen prey to the fear mongering. In doing so, we’ve allowed the government to engage in excessive secrecy and the vilification of truth-tellers.
If we have learned anything from Snowden whistleblowing, it must be that our constitutional democracy requires more vigilance. We need information, not disinformation.