Heroes of 2014 Honorable Mention: Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden is probably guilty of espionage. And he almost certainly did the right thing by leaking classified documents to the media.

Goals Status:

  • Marathon: On Track.
  • Two Square Yards of Earth: Making Progress. I will start Chapter 6 tomorrow.
  • 100 Posts: On Track. This is my 25th post for the year.

I’m still not sure I believe Edward Snowden is a hero. Revealing classified programs, however onerous their nature, and fleeing to a country that has been your country’s adversary for most of the last century is not exactly the stuff of fireside stories. But I applaud his courage in doing what he felt was right.

Electronic surveillance is a messy business. Millions of communications by phone, web, email, text, and other methods must be sifted through and analyzed for patterns that might reveal threats to the country. That’s how I understand it’s supposed to work. Even that seems to flirt dangerously with unauthorized wiretapping, which the Fourth Amendment prohibits among unreasonable searches and seizures. In the years after the 9-11 attack, we collectively squeezed our eyes shut and nodded and said OK, we can do that because we can’t think of anything better right now. It was only supposed to apply to communications into and out of the U.S. Any communications within the country were supposed to require a warrant.

Of course, any time you put humans in charge of a program where a very fine line separates right from wrong, some of them will cross that line. Some will do it by accident–and some will do it intentionally, thinking the limits exist only to keep them from doing the best job they can. That appears to be what happened at the NSA. What started as an unpleasant but necessary (and necessarily limited) program morphed into a broad and vague surveillance mandate ripe for abuse and misuse.

These are the programs and practices Edward Snowden revealed. Our government, bound by the Constitution we love, was listening in on our electronic communications with very few practical limits. And their legal authority to do so was creeping further and further into areas protected by the Fourth Amendment.

I don’t know when he first noticed the abuses. I don’t know when he first went to his supervisor with his concerns. I don’t know how many of his supervisor’s superiors he tried to contact, or how many FBI or Secret Service contacts with the appropriate clearance he tried to give the information to. It might have been none of them. It probably wasn’t all of them.

But at some point, he decided the only way he could correct the abuses that concerned him was to reveal them to the media and trust the country to demand change.

So he flew to Hong Kong and started giving classified documents to the American press. Then he started seeking asylum in other countries. Then he went to Russia.

Maybe he went because he was afraid of conveniently disappearing if he returned to the U.S. Maybe he was afraid his ability to influence the situation would be diminished if he were incarcerated. Maybe he just didn’t want to go to federal prison. Maybe, if he had turned himself in and accepted the consequences of his actions, we all would have forgotten about him and he would ultimately have accomplished nothing.

Still, the fact that he fled the country, evading the legal consequences of his actions, diminishes the impact of his actions and makes him easier to dismiss. It seems to me that a man who believes strongly enough to betray his country’s secrets for its own good ought to be willing to pay the price the country demands for his actions.

To me, that’s the difference between a Hero of 2014 and an almost-hero. I applaud his courage in revealing the information. I hate it that he ran.

I've been a soldier, a dreamer, a working stiff, a leader. A husband, father, example (good and otherwise), and now a survivor. I write about courage, because courage is what enables us to accomplish the impossible. If you draw breath, I love you. If you love in whatever way seems best to you and want others to love in whatever way seems best to them, I am your ally. If you believe someone is less than you because they do not love the way you do, I oppose you. If you see someone as a threat to be abused or destroyed merely because they do not look like you, or love like you, or worship like you, I am your enemy. I am a joyful and courageous man. And I stand with you who love.