Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden ()

Edward Snowden broke the law. There seems to be little, if any, doubt about that. The problem is that his case presents us with the same conundrum faced when Sir Thomas Moore refused to bow to King Henry’s royal will, when abolitionists ignored the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and when Rosa Parks refused to take her seat in the back of he bus.

They all broke the law, but justice argued for leniency. Snowden broke the law, but his action brought to light the most massive government intrusion into individual privacy that the United States has ever experienced. The news media has been filled with stories about the National Security Agency surveillance activities he exposed. The agency has seized, and stored in a massive data bank, information about millions, even billions of cell phone calls made in the United States by its own citizens. The agency claims that while it stores this information, it only retrieves and reviews it in cases of national security, but that begs the question.

Two federal district courts have ruled on the constitutionality of the program. They have split. One says it is a violation of constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure, the other says it meets the test of constitutional acceptability. The other court considers the agency’s reliance on discretion in its use of the information an adequate safeguard of the citizenry’s individual rights. The final word on this issue will not be handed down for some time to come.

What is certain is that the program comes as a surprise to most Americans. It seems equally certain that it would not have been disclosed to us without Edward Snowden’s law breaking. Without Snowden’s actions there would not have been a debate about it at all.

We are and must remain a nation of laws; a people that honors the law, wherever that may take us. But what do we do about a case like Snowden’s? A case where one man took it upon himself to judge that our government was breaking the law and then who, in turn, defied the very law he claims to honor in order to reveal that breach. Snowden did not follow any established procedure. Snowden caused real, perhaps, incalculable harm by his revelations, and we really will never know what motivated him. Was he a dedicated patriot or just another disgruntled government worker? We do know, however, that without him, there is little doubt but that the NSA cell phone interception program would have continued unfettered by either public exposure or constitutional scrutiny; and it should be examined.

Our constitutional rights are too precious to be left to the vagaries of bureaucratic largess. Time and time again throughout our history, governmental agents, acting in a good faith belief that what they did was in the best interests of the country, have infringed upon, indeed, trampled upon the rights of our citizens. Governmental excess during 1919′s “Red Scare;” the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, and Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist attacks of the 1950s all represent government run amok in the “public interest.” These assaults on individual liberty were public, notorious and obvious. The most disturbing thing about the NSA cell phone interceptions is that they were secret and undetectable by the public.

None of this, however, answers the question of what to do with Edward Snowden. Has he performed a public service? Perhaps. Is he an untarnished hero? No.

His case raises that classic question of whether ends justify means. Was it right for him to break one law to reveal an alleged breach of another? This question may never be satisfactorily answered, however, that does not remove the problem of what to do with Snowden.

The New York Times has suggested that he be granted clemency or at least some sort of plea bargained punishment that would balance these factors and perhaps that is the best solution. Whatever is done with Edward Snowden, we must not lose sight of the magnitude of the issue that he revealed – a massive, questionable intrusion into individual rights that would make George Orwell’s Big Brother proud.•