Aleteia Experts weigh in on the developing story surrounding Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower on the run from the US government
Former contract worker for the NSA Edward Snowden revealed a massive, secret spying program named PRISM earlier this month. After initially fleeing to Hong Kong, he traveled to Russia after the US requested Hong Kong to extradite him. Russian President Vladimir Putin has confirmed that Snowden is now in Russia and has told the US that Russia has no plans to turn him over.
We asked our Aleteia Experts what they thought about the international situation, Edward Snowden, and the program he revealed, PRISM.
"I think I can say why the Obama administration would want to focus on Snowden rather than on what Snowden has revealed. It's a diversionary tactic," literature professor Anthony Esolen told Aleteia. "The Nixon administration did the same thing with Daniel Ellsberg, the man who peddled the Pentagon Papers, going so far as to filch files from the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist. I'm not saying that Ellsberg was a hero — he wasn't; and John Dean, the canary in the Watergate scandal, was a coward and a fink. But sometimes we get valuable information from cowards and finks, and we don't scruple to use it."
Author John Zmirak also questions the US government's motives and says he hopes Snowden is not turned over: "It's only to be expected that the U.S. government would try to do that, but I hope other governments–whose citizens were the main targets of U.S. spying–would not accommodate American requests."
Snowden’s Legal Situation
Assistant professor of Government and Political Philosophy Joseph Wysocki explains Snowden’s legal situation. “Currently the United States has filed a number of criminal charges related to espionage against Edward Snowden. If he is brought back to the United States, he will undoubtedly be prosecuted under a number of them.”
“The question of treason is far more difficult than whether Snowden violated specific espionage statutes,” he explained. “Article III of the Constitution states treason ‘shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.’ […] Snowden is obviously not engaged in armed conflict. However, the changing nature of both the types of combatants and methods of war, might broaden that actions to which the first part of the definition apply.”
“As for the second part of the definition, giving aid and comfort to our enemies, the question is even more difficult. Who are the enemies of the United States and what constitutes giving them aid? From the standpoint of realist theory, due to the anarchic nature of the international system, any other nation is either an enemy or potential enemy.”
“As far as the penalty that can be exacted on Snowden,” Wysocki told Aleteia, “it probably makes little difference as to whether he is prosecuted under espionage statutes or for treason. The sentences for both are quite hefty.”
Perhaps the bigger question, Wysocki explains, is what legal precedent is set: “[T]rying Snowden for treason would certainly have an additional rhetorical effect. It would send a message about the seriousness of such actions and might indicate a commitment to future action. At the same time, such a prosecution, at least with current facts, might broaden the interpretation of the definition of treason. This precedent could be dangerous. The framers of the Constitution, while designing a regime capable of defending itself, limited the definition of treason so that those in power would not use it as a tool against their political enemies.”
Wary of a Surveillance State
Writer in residence at Thomas More College Joseph Pearce is highly critical of the PRISM program revealed by Snowden. "The level of government surveillance has reached Orwellian proportions. We should all be pleased that such invasion and violation of liberties has been highlighted by Snowden," he said. "The fact is that secular fundamentalism is a clear and present danger to freedom exceeding the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. It is a sad but true fact that American citizens need to look in the direction of the their own government for the greatest threat to their cherished freedoms."
Esolen questions the need for such a program. "I do not see why the NSA has had to cast a net so wide as to include anybody and everybody who uses Facebook and the other social sites, and I don't care that they assure me that they weren't peeking when I was writing," he said. "It's like stationing a bug or a camera in everybody's living room, and then saying, 'Well, we didn't have a label on you, we weren't really paying attention,' when the obvious rejoinder is that anybody so unscrupulous as to put the bug there would surely not scruple to listen in, if it was thought that listening might be politically profitable. We are a surveillance state."
Zmirak also questions the prudence of such a program, arguing it actually makes us less safe. "If our foreign policy were less grandiose and delusional, we wouldn't need to shred our citizens' rights to hold back terrorist blowback. Nothing justifies terrorism, but some things help provoke it. We need to restrain the ambitions of our politicians, not monitor the phone calls of every citizen."
Shaken Trust in Our Government
“To my mind, the biggest question raised by the Snowden episode is how an undereducated young man with no prior service in a position of trust came to have access to some of the nation's most sensitive secrets,” Catholic commentator Russell Shaw told Aleteia. “I suppose there is no such thing as a totally leak-proof system, but this kind of foolishness simply boggles the mind.”
Esolen wonders whether this shows our government is too big. "What Snowden has revealed should call into question whether any modern state beyond a rather modest size can exist and still be relied upon to respect fundamental human freedoms."
Zmirak thinks the situation should remind us to always be vigilant. "No one country can be trusted with unilateral power, and our policies for the past 10 years have proved that we're no exception."
The following Aleteia Experts contributed to this article:
Anthony Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College.
Joseph Pearce is Writer-in-Residence and Professor of Humanities at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.
Russell Shaw is former Secretary for Public Affairs of the U.S. Catholic bishops conference. His books include American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America and To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity.
Joseph Wysocki is Assistant Professor of Government and Political Philosophy at Belmont Abbey College. His main area of interest is American politics.