So now what do we do with Ed Snowden?
The irony of the USA Freedom Act, strongly supported by Utah Sen. Mike Lee and signed into law Tuesday by President Barack Obama, is that it vindicates virtually everything Snowden did when, as a contract worker for the National Security Agency, he revealed secrets about how the government went about collecting information on Americans.
For this, Snowden remains exiled in Russia, wanted by the Obama administration’s Justice Department on espionage charges, while lawmakers and the president have changed the law because of it.
It’s time for some closure.
Former U.S. diplomat John Bolton once said, “Politicians, like generals, have a tendency to fight the last war.” In this case, the last war was the attack on America by hijacked airliners on Sept. 11, 2001.
The NSA’s phone data collection would have worked well in detecting that plot ahead of time, as former FBI director Robert Mueller once testified before the House Judicial Oversight Committee.
Just before the attacks, Khalid al–Midhar, one of the hijackers, called a safe house in Yemen from a phone in San Diego. Mueller said authorities today would have listened to that call and acted on it.
All of which may be true, but today’s brand of terrorists aren’t likely to place calls from San Diego to Yemen.
On Wednesday, members of the House Homeland Security Committee got an update on how today’s war is being waged. FBI assistant director Michael Steinbach told them of the “dark” recess of the Internet. This is an encrypted corner of cyberspace far beyond the reaches of Google. It is a cesspool inhabited by drug dealers, pedophiles and others who wish to communicate and trade in secret, and that includes terrorists associated with ISIS.
The U.S. military developed the software that makes this secrecy possible, but now, Steinbach said, government lacks the legal ability to use surveillance in these dark regions.
Meanwhile, as a CBS report on this testimony noted, social media companies are encrypting their content, making it harder to see who is saying what. The recent attack on a Muhammad art show in Texas was signaled by a Twitter hashtag.
These evolving tactics may make arguments over telephone surveillance about as effective as military strategies for combating Japanese Zeros. But at the heart of the debate still lies the tug-of-war between freedom and security.
Which brings us back to Snowden.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has called him guilty of treason for what he did. For his part, in a video he released in 2013, Snowden said, “If living unfreely, but comfortably, is something you’re willing to accept … you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large paycheck for relatively little work against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows.”
But does that lead necessarily to betraying government secrets and going to live in exile in Russia, where government abuses are far worse?
And what are we to think about possible motivations behind Vladimir Putin’s willingness to let him stay?
To many Americans, Snowden is an enigma, somewhere between a patriot who let us know our own government was violating our privacy and a scoundrel willing to aid and abet the enemy; a friend to Wikileaks founder Julianne Assange, who is more concerned with ideology than national loyalty.
So what do we do with Ed Snowden? Bring him home and put him on trial.
As Washington attorney Ronald Goldfarb argued recently on politico.com, this should be a televised jury trial. “The government is entitled to an accounting. He is entitled to make his case for clemency,” Goldfarb wrote.
By this time, with bipartisan support in Washington to curtail the eavesdropping programs he exposed, and with a recent 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that those programs were illegal to begin with, it would be hard to argue Snowden is incapable of receiving a fair trial.
It would, of course, be great theater. But it might also grant us all a sense of clarity in the national debate on government secrecy.