When does “providing for the common defence” not “promote the general welfare”?*
A new NSA data centre sits beyond a residential area in Bluffdale, Utah. It will be the largest of several interconnected data centres spread throughout the US. Photograph: George Frey/Getty Images
The US government has charged Edward Snowden with three felonies, including two under the Espionage Act, the 1917 statute enacted to criminalize dissent against World War I. My priority at the moment is working on our next set of stories, so I just want to briefly note a few points about this.
Prior to Barack Obama’s inauguration, there were a grand total of three prosecutions of leakers under the Espionage Act (including the prosecution of Dan Ellsberg by the Nixon DOJ). That’s because the statute is so broad that even the US government has largely refrained from using it. But during the Obama presidency, there are now sevensuch prosecutions: more than double the number under all prior US presidents combined. How can anyone justify that?
For a politician who tried to convince Americans to elect him based on repeated pledges of unprecedented transparency and specific vows to protect “noble” and “patriotic” whistleblowers, is this unparalleled assault on those who enable investigative journalism remotely defensible? Recall that the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer said recently that this oppressive climate created by the Obama presidency has brought investigative journalism to a “standstill”, while James Goodale, the General Counsel for the New York Times during its battles with the Nixon administration, wrote last month in that paper that “President Obama will surely pass President Richard Nixon as the worst president ever on issues of national security and press freedom.” Read what Mayer and Goodale wrote and ask yourself: is the Obama administration’s threat to the news-gathering process not a serious crisis at this point?
Few people – likely including Snowden himself – would contest that his actions constitute some sort of breach of the law. He made his choice based on basic theories of civil disobedience: that those who control the law have become corrupt, that the law in this case (by concealing the actions of government officials in building this massive spying apparatus in secret) is a tool of injustice, and that he felt compelled to act in violation of it in order to expose these official bad acts and enable debate and reform.
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But that’s a far cry from charging Snowden, who just turned 30 yesterday, with multiple felonies under the Espionage Act that will send him to prison for decades if not life upon conviction. In what conceivable sense are Snowden’s actions “espionage”? He could have – but chose not – sold the information he had to a foreign intelligence service for vast sums of money, or covertly passed it to one of America’s enemies, or worked at the direction of a foreign government.That is espionage. He did none of those things.
What he did instead was give up his life of career stability and economic prosperity, living with his long-time girlfriend in Hawaii, in order to inform his fellow citizens (both in America and around the world) of what the US government and its allies are doing to them and their privacy. He did that by very carefully selecting which documents he thought should be disclosed and concealed, then gave them to a newspaper with a team of editors and journalists and repeatedly insisted that journalistic judgments be exercised about which of those documents should be published in the public interest and which should be withheld.
That’s what every single whistleblower and source for investigative journalism, in every case, does – by definition. In what conceivable sense does that merit felony charges under the Espionage Act?
The essence of that extremely broad, century-old law is that one is guilty if one discloses classified information “with intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation”. Please read this rather good summary in this morning’s New York Times of the worldwide debate Snowden has enabled – how these disclosures have “set off a national debate over the proper limits of government surveillance” and “opened an unprecedented window on the details of surveillance by the NSA, including its compilation of logs of virtually all telephone calls in the United States and its collection of e-mails of foreigners from the major American Internet companies, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple and Skype” – and ask yourself: has Snowden actually does anything to bring “injury to the United States”, or has he performed an immense public service?
The irony is obvious: the same people who are building a ubiquitous surveillance system to spy on everyone in the world, including their own citizens, are now accusing the person who exposed it of “espionage”. It seems clear that the people who are actually bringing “injury to the United States” are those who are waging war on basic tenets of transparency and secretly constructing a mass and often illegal and unconstitutional surveillance apparatus aimed at American citizens – and those who are lying to the American people and its Congress about what they’re doing – rather than those who are devoted to informing the American people that this is being done.
The Obama administration leaks classified information continuously. They do it to glorify the President, or manipulate public opinion, or even to help produce a pre-election propaganda film about the Osama bin Laden raid. The Obama administration does not hate unauthorized leaks of classified information. They are more responsible for such leaks than anyone.
What they hate are leaks that embarrass them or expose their wrongdoing. Those are the only kinds of leaks that are prosecuted. It’s a completely one-sided and manipulative abuse of secrecy laws. It’s all designed to ensure that the only information we as citizens can learn is what they want us to learn because it makes them look good. The only leaks they’re interested in severely punishing are those that undermine them politically. The “enemy” they’re seeking to keep ignorant with selective and excessive leak prosecutions are not The Terrorists or The Chinese Communists. It’s the American people.
The Terrorists already knew, and have long known, that the US government is doing everything possible to surveil their telephonic and internet communications. The Chinese have long known, and have repeatedly said, that the US is hacking into both their governmental and civilian systems (just as the Chinese are doing to the US). The Russians have long known that the US and UK try to intercept the conversations of their leaders just as the Russians do to the US and the UK.
They haven’t learned anything from these disclosures that they didn’t already well know. The people who have learned things they didn’t already know are American citizens who have no connection to terrorism or foreign intelligence, as well as hundreds of millions of citizens around the world about whom the same is true. What they have learned is that the vast bulk of this surveillance apparatus is directed not at the Chinese or Russian governments or the Terrorists, but at them.
And that is precisely why the US government is so furious and will bring its full weight to bear against these disclosures. What has been “harmed” is not the national security of the US but the ability of its political leaders to work against their own citizens and citizens around the world in the dark, with zero transparency or real accountability. If anything is a crime, it’s that secret, unaccountable and deceitful behavior: not the shining of light on it.
Editor’s Note: “…provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare…” from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.