Simon Williamson

Give Snowden a medal

2014-01-03 09:05

Simon Williamson.

 The New York Times published an editorial on Thursday, along with The Guardian calling for Edward Snowden – the man who exposed the US government’s spy programmes in use on its own citizens – to receive clemency.

This, naturally, re-ignited the perpetual debate as to whether Snowden is a hero, a traitor, a patriot, a whistle-blower or some attention-seeker who likes to get his jollies with terrorists.

Of all the things Americans take seriously – guns, food portions, war etc – none of them trump the Constitution. And it is a pretty good constitution, which places severe limits on what the government can and cannot do. T

hroughout history, lawmakers (sometimes aided by the courts) have chipped away at some of the major parts, in this instance the Fourth Amendment. Just as an aside: the first ten amendments to the US Constitution are considered the country’s Bill of Rights.

Amendment number four says this (emphasis mine): “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

That’s not some recommendation: that is a principle document under which the United States must function. In relation to what we are talking about here: if the US government or any of its law enforcement agencies wish to search you, it should require a specific warrant (where is it permitting searching, and what law enforcement is looking for) with a reasonable justification for wanting to do so – it can’t just point fingers willy-nilly and decide to go and have a squiz.

What Snowden exposed to the world is that the US government – under the useful guise of warding off terrorism – was maintaining records of phone calls made in the US.

Not the content, mind you, but what it termed “metadata” – the time of the call, what number called what number, how long they were on the call for, where the callers were, and that sort of thing.

That may initially sound somewhat innocuous, considering the US government wasn’t listening to the contents of conversations, but consider this: the governing administration, not all that long ago, caught a hissy-fit over an article in the Associated Press (AP) which involved leaked information about a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen.

So to attempt to investigate the source of the leak, it secretly got itself two months of phone records for 21 landlines in five AP offices, five reporters’ cellular phones, three home phones and two fax lines.

In other words, anyone who took information to the AP within that two-month period now has records of his or her phone calls in the government’s hands. Read another way: people with information on government’s wrongdoings are now less likely to expose it for fear of having the department of justice come after them; pure and simple intimidation.

It isn’t the most difficult thing in the world to put pieces of your life together if who you speak to, how often you speak to them, and from where you speak to them (and where they happen to be) is all known.

And that was merely the beginning. The next level of stories that broke detailed how government was also vacuuming up internet data – what sites people had visited, and for how long.

A mere few seconds of thinking is all you need to consider just what power that puts in the hands of whoever has it, particular an entity with an agenda like government, and how there is no way that sort of policy can be congruent with the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution.

And just how government gave itself this authority to defecate all over the Fourth Amendment also came to light while the Snowden revelations played out: a secret court – to which the government is the only party – decides whether to dish out warrants on this sort of surveillance or not, under broadly-defined laws, the infamous Patriot Act, and reauthorisations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

And it hardly ever says no. Secrecy litters itself throughout this process – in fact the department of justice was under no obligation to tell the AP it was hoovering up all its phone records. Do you know what kinds of laws and court decisions you can’t challenge? Secret ones.

So Edward Snowden exposed the government intentionally ignoring the Constitution, spying in its own citizens, seeing where they go on the internet, and how it gives itself the power to do so in secret.

While there is absolutely no chance the Obama administration will let Snowden off the hook – it went after Chelsea Manning (previously Bradley Manning, Chelsea now lives as a woman) in venomous fashion – there should be no doubt that what Snowden did was in the US’ national interest.

There shouldn’t even be a debate as to whether Snowden deserves a plea bargain – something the New York Times editorial suggests.

He should receive an immediate pardon from the US government, and thanks from an American public. None of it in secret.

Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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