Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Spying on Americans


OUR OPINION: Time to examine the balance between security and privacy

Give Edward Snowden credit for sparking a long overdue debate about the extent of government snooping into the private lives and (supposedly) private communications of U.S. citizens. But that’s where the credit begins and ends for the 29-year-old former National Security Agency contractor.

Mr. Snowden is no hero. Currently on the lam from his surveillance post in Hawaii, he flew to Hong Kong, an outpost of China, and then Moscow, and reportedly plans to go from there to Cuba on the way to sanctuary in Ecuador.

Thus, the self-styled apostle of privacy and freedom of information is hop-scotching around the world in pursuit of asylum by seeking shelter in countries that routinely trample on the privacy rights of their own citizens — and strike back viciously at critics who refuse to toe the government line.

When it comes to evading the consequences of his actions, Mr. Snowden’s principles apparently boil down to the old seaman’s maxim: Any port in a storm.

Supporters call Mr. Snowden a courageous whistle-blower. Nonsense. He’s a thief who took an oath to safeguard the country’s secrets and then promptly stole those secrets and made them public, ignoring the significant harm that exposure could do to the country’s legitimate need to gather information against actual and potential terrorists.

A genuine whistle-blower exposes wrongdoing, usually of a criminal nature — stealing, corruption, shady deals and the like. But what Edward Snowden made public were government programs that, though secret by their very nature, were thoroughly vetted by all branches of the government: approved by Congress, operated by the executive branch, overseen by the courts. There was nothing “illegal” about them.

Yet the secrets exposed by Mr. Snowden are indeed troubling. The government’s wholesale reaping of email and telephone call data from private communications companies without notification to the affected parties violates fundamental notions of privacy.

The great Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said (in a dissent against government wiretapping) that the greatest American right of all was the right to be let alone. The notion of Big Brother prying into our private communications is anathema to most Americans, and should be.

But where was the public revulsion when the laws that set up these programs were under debate? As far back as 2005, the Herald warned in editorials that some provisions of the Patriot Act and the powers granted to a secret court under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) could easily be subject to abuse. That same year, newspapers exposed warrantless wiretapping by the NSA.

But despite the ensuing controversy, the government was given sweeping powers to examine private communications. Facing the very real threat of terrorism, the public opted for security over privacy. Now that the secrets are out, it’s time for a serious debate about striking a balance between privacy and security.

One place to begin is curbing the number of people with access to secret information, and restricting the power of individuals like Mr. Snowden to engage in wholesale theft.

Another is to demand that the secret court set up by FISA be more skeptical of government claims. Between 2001 and 2012, the FISA judges approved 20,909 surveillance and property search warrants and denied just 10 applications. The public needs a watchdog — not a lapdog.

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