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OPINION: Snowden’s motives aren’t the issues; our security and liberty are

Edward Snowden, Wikipedia photo

From Albany Times Union via Associated Press

Whether you see Edward Snowden as an egomaniacal traitor who exposed vital national secrets or a conscientious whistle-blower in the tradition of Daniel Ellsberg, one thing is clear: His revelations that the U.S. government has been gathering vast amounts of data on its citizens has ignited an essential national discussion on security and privacy.

Look no further than to President Obama himself for the rather schizophrenic reaction America is having to the Snowden affair. The same president who would still like to get his hands on Snowden, and who talks of rethinking our relationship with Russia for harboring him, also declares that he believes our intelligence programs need increased transparency, reforms, oversight and protections against abuse.

As they surely do.

We'll leave it to history to judge  Snowden and his motives. That side debate should not distract our focus on the real issues his actions have exposed. Vilifying him should not let the government off the hook to explain itself and assure us that it is not abusing its technological power.

The gathering of data — records of phone calls and use of the Internet — by the National Security Agency gives the government the ability to fairly easily pry into all sorts of our private activities, from whom we converse with to what websites we (or others in our household, like curious children and teenagers) visit. How that data is used, who has access to it, and what might constitute enough evidence for an individual to become a terror suspect are only the first questions that come to mind. In a world so interconnected by social media, an innocent citizen suddenly has to wonder just how many degrees separate him or her from suspicion in the mind, or algorithms, of such an information-empowered government.

We are also now keenly aware of how the deck appears to be stacked too much in the government's favor in the secret court where such questions are asked and answered. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, created as a brake on government abuse of power, instead seems all too willing to go along with requests to spy on citizens, with no outside review of its decisions and all its members appointed by a single individual, the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Where are the checks and balances?

Obama suddenly is all about fixing this system. The president says he has urged intelligence community leaders to declassify as much material about the surveillance program as possible, without compromising national security. The NSA plans to have a "civil liberties and privacy officer," and there is talk of creating an independent position in the FISA court to act as the government's adversary.

All well and good, though these developments should have come long ago. And they would have, no doubt, if Congress hadn't been willfully asleep at the wheel, preferring to give this president, and the last one, carte blanche rather than do the admittedly hard, politically risky work of trying to find the balance between protecting America's security and Americans' privacy in the 21st century.

Like it or not, Washington will have to do that work now. We, the people, should see to it that it breaks a sweat.

--The Times Union of Albany, courtesy of Associated Press

August 16, 2013 - 8:30am


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