In the end, it really is all about Big Brother. (The marketplace understands that, with sales of George Orwell’s dystopian book soaring 292 per cent on Amazon. Clearly, people are trying to reconcile the 1949 portrait of a surveillance state with the picture of the US sketched by Edward Snowden.
So, did Edward Snowden commit treason? No, not if you read Article Three, Section Three of the US Constitution, as Dylan Matthews suggests in his excellent Washington Post blog on the subject.
As Snowden himself put it, “I’m neither a traitor, nor a hero, just an American.”
I believe enough in America to believe the US government really does mean what it says about its devotion to human freedoms and human rights. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as the Declaration of Independence put it with simple force.
Explaining its commitment to “promote the rule of law, seek accountability, and change cultures of impunity”, the US State Department stresses that “the protection of fundamental human rights was a foundation stone in the establishment of the United States over 200 years ago.” Quite so.
Then why do all these and many other good people put up with the direct violation of the fourth amendment of the US constitution? Why does Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein (Democrat) declare Snowden’s actions as “an act of treason” not that of a whistleblower? Why does her fellow Democrat senator, Bill Nelson, baldly categorize it the same way and House Speaker John Boehner (Republican) insist Snowden is “a traitor”?
Even if they don’t get him on the grounds of treason, the 1917 Espionage Act is broad enough to do so, as Julian Borger explains. Section 793 of the law, he says, “makes it an offence to take, retain or transfer knowledge ‘with intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation’. The law does not stipulate whether the information involved would have to be classified, as that word was not in usage at the time the act was passed. More importantly from Snowden’s point of view, it says nothing about exemptions for leaks claiming to be in the public interest.”
Snowden can also expect no help from the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act, as it excludes those working for the armed services or intelligence community.
That will be of some comfort to those complaining about Snowden publicizing illegal actions (even if classified ‘top secret’). Why the caterwauling? Those who have secret or top secret US security clearances know that their first duty is to the US constitution.
I believe enough in human rights to know that if I look away from their violation for ‘certain’ people – Muslims in the post-9/11 era; Communists in an earlier age and so on and on – I have no right to expect that they will stay intact for me.
As Martin Niemöller, the conservative pastor who opposed the nazification of German Protestant churches, famously wrote, they will come for me next:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.