Snowden To The Left Of Me, The NSA To The Right, Here I Am, Stuck In The Middle.. With You?

Ever since Edward Snowden began disclosing secret NSA monitoring programs to the public, there has been a very divided reaction from all corners of the globe. Some sing Snowden's praises for revealing the actions of what they describe as an agency run amok, violating the law under the patriotic covers of "National Security" and "The War On Terror". The opposing view paints Snowden as a traitor to his country, weakening America as he alerts the terrorists to the methods that the Intelligence Community uses to track and stop terrorism. On one hand, Snowden has been nominated for a European Human Rights Award. On the other, former NSA (and CIA) chief Gen Michael Hayden jokingly (?) called for Snowden to be put on a "kill list". So, depending on whom you listen to/believe, either Snowden or the NSA is a rogue, out of control element that must be stopped.

So which is it?

After considerable thought, I have come to the conclusion that I both agree and disagree with both points of view. This is a new experience for me.

On the surface, I understand the reasoning behind the NSA vacuuming up massive amounts of data from telephone calls, internet traffic, and possibly even more insidious items like location data in order to combat terrorism. In many ways, I even support it; it makes sense to use technology to thwart the plans of those who would do us harm. In fact, I'm not even overly concerned that my very own conversations might be monitored -- the "I'm doing nothing wrong" school of thought. Of course, nothing is that simple; and while the NSA serves a crucial function in our Nation's security, what we are seeing now is reminiscent of the CIA abuses from the '60s and '70s, which ended in Congressional hearings, new oversight legislation, and a black eye on the intelligence community as a whole. History, it would seem, is repeating itself; but this time it looks like it's the NSA's turn to be taught that most valuable lesson entitled "Thou Shalt Not Break The Law". Believing as I do in the NSA's primary goal - to both protect American computer systems and information while attempting to compromise that of our enemies, I worry that these abuses could result in a backlash severe enough to compromise their ability to perform that function. If the NSA and the rest of the Intelligence Community make the mistake of wrapping these abuses in the flag while waving pictures of Osama bin Laden and hiding behind a large "National Security" banner, then they may well find themselves facing a very cold reception from the American public and, by extension, Congress. A nation must have and keep secrets to function; I think that most Americans understand that. However, when they operate outside the law and try to cover it up as "state secrets", well, the public has spoken up loudly against it before, and obviously will do so again.

Edward Snowden broke the law. There's little question about that; he accessed classified information and disclosed it to persons unauthorized to receive it. No one, including Snowden, debates this. Of course, this is not a simple black-and-white matter either. Snowden is also a whistleblower who saw and reported illegal activity in the only manner he knew how. If you abhor the NSA's abuses, then you must consider for yourself just how much longer they might have gone on unnoticed if not for Snowden's actions. On the other hand, I am loathe to consider allowing Snowden to create a precedent that might encourage others to leak classified information that damages legitimate intelligence gathering.

Therein lies the rub. I both support what Snowden did, but believe he should be punished. I also believe that the NSA should be reined in, but not shut down. Many of the data gathering programs have legitimate functions but reached too broadly into places they ought not, and either stretched or broke the law in doing so. Snowden should be thanked for having the courage to essentially toss his life away in order to ensure that the NSA's abuses did not go unchecked; but he cannot be permitted to become an inspiration for everyone who has access to classified information (legitimately or not) who has a superficial ax to grind.

Ideally, we would have total oversight of the intelligence community by appropriate members of Congress, but I'm increasingly convinced that many of them couldn't tell you the NSA's primary function if they had been briefed on the topic 20 minutes prior. And let's face it; they are too busy fighting their partisan battles to get too involved in fixing a broken intelligence agency.

The most shocking thing, then, is the fact that both Presidents Bush AND Obama have BOTH championed and protected these programs. The only conclusion one can logically draw is that they have been effective to a high degree. Snowden's disclosures, then, have likely had an adverse effect to what was likely a very effective program; which of course would sound much worse if the programs hadn't been essentially illegal and morally repugnant to the people they are supposed to serve.