Prying Eyes

I haven’t joined the Pardon Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning movement, although I credit her for trying to do something about government overreach, even if it was poorly conceived. It’s fine that she will be spending a few more years in prison, as a soldier. She is genuinely contrite and apologetic.

Given her special struggle with gender identity and decision to live as a woman, I think Manning is destined for hospital treatment and out – as Chelsea Manning – before the expected eight-year term is done.

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I’m more concerned about Edward Snowden, now holed up in Russia on a one-year asylum deal. He is not contrite, but he is collared.  I’m sure he is quickly learning the limits of freedom, particularly in the grip of Vladimir Putin, former czar of the KGB.  After a year of internment, offers of asylum in Venezuela and Uruguay may look less inviting. Snowden may return to face the music. Are we ready for that trial?

Manning, a U.S. army enlisted man serving in Iraq, leaked 250,000 State Department diplomatic cables and 500,000 battlefield action reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, including a video of an Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed civilians, including two Reuters journalists. These releases shone a harsh light on U.S. diplomatic and military activities – an embarrassment, certainly, and a black eye for American relations with some allies.  But also sunshine on a dark place.

Snowden was a civilian computer program analyst working on contract for the National Security Agency.  He used his access to reveal NSA’s massive metadata gathering of U.S. phone records, and its PRISM, EKeyscore and Tempora Internet surveillance programs on Americans. He also revealed parallel British mega-spying, leaking the information to both UK’s Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post.

Both Manning and Snowden maintain they leaked the information to journalists to expose the overreach and deception of U.S. policy makers. Manning’s data dump was to an international Internet clearinghouse called WikiLeaks, which promises no holds barred in releasing government documents and protecting whistleblowers. WikiLeaks and its leader Julian Assange have come to the aid of Snowden, trying to help him find asylum.

What makes Snowden’s case unique, however, is that his leaks involve the U.S. government spying on its own people. The NSA has cast its widest net under the cover of the “war on terrorism” to record and review voice and email communications of Americans, tracking who is talking to whom and how often (metadata).

ImageBased on Snowden’s information, the NSA surveillance programs appear to violate the privacy rights of millions of Americans. Since those revelations, ensuing audits and declassified documents have shown that NSA has, in fact, stepped over the line again and again in the name of fighting terrorism. It’s time for Congress and the administration to sanction illegal surveillance activity, and review and reform these intelligence programs. We need greater oversight.

President Obama has promised to fix it, and I look forward to seeing the details. Part of fixing the program should be giving Snowden credit for time served behind the old Iron Curtain, at least tacit credit for exposing the NSA problems. Perhaps that means that Snowden will deserve a pardon. I look forward to the trial, when Snowden stops running. But first he has a year in the gulag.

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Obama was wise to cancel a September summit meeting with Putin, but the Snowden affair was a red herring. Under Putin, Russia has acted poorly on the world stage, arming Syria’s strongman Bashar al-Assad and repressing its own people, from truth-telling journalists to girl rockers Pussy Riot. Russians are being imprisoned and killed for speaking their minds. Meeting with Putin in summit pomp and circumstance would provide tacit support for the dictatorship.

I’m sure Russia’s ignominious record (and maybe some prying eyes, and fingers) is chilling to Snowden as he sets up house in a Russian dacha. The iron culture engrained in Russian rule is no friend to notions of freedom of speech, freedom of association or freedom, period. The Russian experience is the exact opposite, citizens struggling against an oppressive state, whether it is tied to a tsarist monarchy or to a communist apparatchik.

Meanwhile, we may have a creeping menace of our own, the National Security Agency. I studied at NSA headquarters in another era — focusing on the Vietnamese language and the codes the Viet Cong were using as they ran supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail. I believe NSA is a critical element of the American intelligence community. It provided the pictures of Bin Laden’s fortress in Pakistan, for example, and images tracking the efforts by Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Without proper oversight, however, NSA is a scary proposition, the intrusive eye in our affairs, Big Brother. The potential for abuse is enormous. As a democratic people, we have to set the parameters for this kind of intrusive spying. It is only one step removed from the oppressor in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” watching our every move.

Fortunately, Americans are not taking this sitting down:

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