Both of them, in their own ways, are responsible for that historic moment this week when Congress turned away from its obsession with national security at all costs and removed a few of the worst provisions of the Patriot Act.
Edward Snowden and Rand Paul. (Laura Poitras / Praxis Films / Shutterstock)
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
Edward Snowden and Rand Paul have little in common except for one important point: They are gutsy patriots who put their reputations and careers on the line in service of their country.
Both of them, in their own ways, are responsible for that historic moment this week when Congress turned away from its obsession with national security at all costs and removed a few of the worst provisions of the Patriot Act. The most notable change removed the National Security Agency’s power to collect unlimited telephone records of everybody and keep them for perusal by intelligence and law enforcement officers who might be suspicious of you, your acquaintances and other contacts. The reform was embodied in a new law, the USA Freedom Act.
As the great Pentagon Papers leaker of the 1970s, Daniel Ellsberg, said of the new law, “The USA Freedom Act is hardly any better than the Patriot Act, as it still violates a lot of our constitutional rights.” But, he told The Guardian newspaper, “This is the first time, thanks to Snowden, that the Senate really stood up and realised they have been complicit in the violation of our rights all along—unconstitutional action. The Senate and the House have been passive up until now and derelict in their responsibilities. At last there was opposition.”
What should happen to Snowden? “He should get the Nobel peace prize and he should get asylum in a west European country,” The Guardian quoted Ellsberg as saying.
“I do not think he will ever be able to come back to the United States no matter how popular he might come to be, and I think there is much more support for him month by month as people come to realise how little substance in the charges that he caused harm to us. They realise he is responsible for the debate going on.
“But that does not mean the intelligence community will ever forgive him for having exposed what they were doing. I don’t think any president will find it politic to confront the intelligence community by pardoning him or allowing him to come back.”
Snowden has risked the most. He has been charged with theft, “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and giving such material to an unauthorized person.
Federal officials relied on the World War I-era 1917 Espionage Act for the charge of unlawful communications. The old law is a favorite of the Obama administration. It has indicted seven, including Snowden, under the law, compared with just three by earlier administrations. If Snowden gives up his self-exile in Russia and returns to the United States for trial, he could face up to 30 years in prison.
This is certainly not what was expected of this quiet, 32-year-old computer and data expert who is the grandson and son of Coast Guard officers and whose mother works for the federal court system. His grandfather was at the Pentagon when it was hit in the 9/11 attacks.
Snowden trained as a reservist for the U.S. Army Special Forces for four months, getting discharged after breaking both legs in an accident. From there, his exceptional computer skills led him from a security guard job to top CIA technical posts, and finally to two of the firms that do intelligence work for the NSA under contracts. It was at this period in his life that Snowden, thwarted by his superiors’ refusal to hear his complaints that the NSA spying program was unconstitutional, decided to leak crucial files to The Guardian and The Washington Post.
Paul, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has risked far less. His opposition to the Patriot Act earned him criticism from some Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Paul’s fellow Kentucky senator, and from the political media, particularly the cable news pundits. But the scorn of such people hardly compares with the threat of a long prison term.
When Paul embarked on his 10½-hour filibuster that ultimately resulted in the demise of the Patriot Act, the pundits noted that his campaign was raising money at the same time. Fundraising during his 2013 filibuster against John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director brought in $65,676, according to an analysis of Federal Elections Commission data by The Guardian and the Center for Responsive Politics.
His media critics said he was using his latest filibuster as a fundraising ploy to help his underdog campaign. But the contributions to him are a pittance compared to the millions that his Republican competitors are collecting from donors and super PACs.
Such media critics haven’t been able accept to Paul at face value. To this cynical bunch, more interested in boosting their Internet traffic than in intelligent analysis, Paul was just another money-hungry politician.
Like Snowden, Paul marches to his own tune, although his libertarian anti-tax father has helped orchestrate it.
His physician father, Ron Paul, is a former congressman who was the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 1988 and ran for the Republican nomination in 2008 and 2012. His son went into the family businesses, medicine and politics.
Rand Paul worked as a volunteer in his father’s campaign and congressional offices and managed some of his campaigns. And he studied medicine, graduating from Duke University as an ophthalmologist and then opening a practice in Bowling Green, Ky.
Anti-tax and anti-government, he was an early adopter of the tea party, which became the base of his campaign for the Senate.
Paul’s dislike of government led him to attack intelligence abuses. Just as Snowden did, Paul saw unrestricted government spying as a violation of the Constitution.
Each used the weapons he had at hand. With Snowden, it was his computer brilliance and understanding of data, plus knowing how to get his material to the media. With Paul, it was his speaking ability, his political sense and his understanding of complex Senate rules.
They came together, in a way.
With the intelligence community, the Obama administration and security-hawk senators and representatives calling for maximum punishment for Snowden, Paul dissented.
“I think, really, in the end,” Paul said last year on ABC’s “This Week” program, “history’s going to judge that he revealed great abuses of our government and great abuses of our intelligence community.”
Edward Snowden. Rand Paul. Two unlikely political bedfellows with one common purpose: ending the mass government surveillance of the American people. For their resilience in the face of unrelenting opposition, we honor Edward Snowden and Rand Paul as our Truthdiggers of the Week.