THESIS: The discussion in the media and society regarding the NSA security leak is focused on whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor, but in order to form an opinion on that, one has to understand what Snowden actually did and how it affects society and the government.
In A3 June of 2013, all the major media outlets broke the story that the National Security Agency (NSA) was "spying" on United States citizens, and that correspondence in the United States was not private. The information the media used for the story was provided by Edward Snowden, who worked as a technical contractor for the NSA at that time. When the story broke, Snowden was in Hong Kong. He had planned his trip in order to keep himself from being immediately detained in the United States. The NSA's surveillance efforts were increased after the 9/11 attacks, and have allegedly kept growing since then (Gross, 2013). A4 Whether the surveillance was within constitutional guidelines is something that is up for debate now that the leaks have shown the extent of the surveillance that is, and has been, taking place. Other NSA contractors state that the Constitution has been violated, but spokespeople from the NSA state that they are not "listening in" on conversations entered into by the average American, nor are they reading emails or other correspondence (Gross, 2013). The A5 discussion in the media and society regarding the NSA security leak is focused on whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor, but in order to form an opinion on that, one has to understand what Snowden actually did and how it affects society and the government.
The National Security Agency is part of the United States Department of Defense. It is a cryptologic intelligence agency, meaning that it studies and analyzes secret or encrypted correspondence (Bellare & Rogaway 10). A6 Responsibilities of the NSA include analyzing foreign communications, and protecting the information and communication systems used by the U.S. Government. These are both efforts that are vital to national security, but they do have the potential to be abused. The Agency has been in operation since 1952, when it was redesigned and re-named from its predecessor, the Armed Forces Security Agency (Truman, 1952). The Armed Forces Security Agency was created in 1949 (Truman, 1952). The law states that the NSA's intelligence-gathering activities are limited to foreign correspondence, but there have been some past concerns that have involved domestic collection of information (Nakishima, Gellman, & Miller, 2013). Those past concerns were deemed put to rest, but Snowden's information indicates that the unauthorized surveillance of citizens' correspondence has not stopped, and may have been ongoing for some time.
Part of the reason for the suspicion surrounding the NSA and its activities involves the past, but that is not the only concern. The other significant issue is that there is no transparency. That is true with many government agencies to some degree, and is most notable with agencies like the CIA and FBI, because covert operations are required to keep activities from being known by terrorists and others who would harm the country and its citizens. Still, the citizens of the U.S. can find information on these Agencies, and talking about them is commonplace and common knowledge, for the most part. With the NSA, this is not generally the case. For example, there is no document stating how many people actually work for the Agency. That information is classified, and in addition to official employees there are also contractors who are hired to perform specific tasks. That could push the number of people with access to the NSA and its information much higher than would be anticipated, even if the number of official employees was known. Reports have stated that the NSA employs around 40,000 people (Rosenbach, Stark, & Stock, 2013). However, there is no way to know if that number is accurate. Since so little is known about the NSA and what it is actually doing to protect the country and address the analysis of foreign communications, it is understandable that some citizens would be curious or would feel suspicious regarding its activities.
A great deal of information came to light about the NSA when it was leaked to the press by Edward Snowden, but that information only served to raise suspicions, not to ease the minds of Americans. Snowden has been largely referred to by media outlets as the "NSA Leaker," although he is not the first person to provide classified information to the public or to people who were not authorized to have knowledge of it. He brought information about the NSA into the light when he openly leaked information about the Agency's activities and how the Agency was collecting domestic data. At the time he acquired that knowledge, he was working as a technical contractor for the NSA, and was also employed by the CIA (Gellman & Markon 2013). A7 Everything that he needed for the leak was at his fingertips, and he has stated that no one had any idea what he was going to do. Even the people closest to him allegedly were not aware that he was planning to leak information (Gellman & Markon, 2013). He worked with London's The Guardian newspaper to provide journalist Glenn Greenwald information about numerous intelligence programs that were deemed classified. These included intercepting metadata from telephone communications in the United States and Europe, along with Internet surveillance programs called Tempora and PRISM. Snowden was quoted as saying A8 the leaks were designed "…to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them" (Gellman, Blake, & Miller, 2013).
Whistleblowing comes with consequences, however, and Snowden has been criminally charged with unauthorized communication of national defense information, theft of government property, and willful communication of classified intelligence to an unauthorized person (Finn & Horwitz, 2013). Two of those charges fall under the Espionage Act (Finn & Horwitz, 2013). Given where he was and what he was able to access, it is likely that Snowden was aware of the charges he could face. He has stated that he could not allow the government to continue to deceive its citizens (Edward Snowden, 2013). The charges caused Snowden to seek asylum in Russia and 19 other countries (Edward Snowden, 2013). Snowden has since withdrawn his Russian asylum request, based on the fact that Russian President Putin stated that Snowden would have to stop leaking classified U.S. information if he wanted to remain in Russia (Edward, 2013). Apparently, Snowden was not willing to do that. He has stated that his first choice for asylum would be Iceland, but so far he has not been granted asylum in that country (Edward, 2013). Iceland considered a measure to grant Snowden immediate citizenship, but it was not met with a high level of support from the government there (Edward, 2013). It is not known where Snowden will end up, but he has accused Vice-President Biden and other political figures of trying to get other countries to refuse his asylum requests (Edward, 2013).
For many people in the United States, the first they had heard of the NSA or paid it any attention was when the story of Edward Snowden and the leaks first broke. At the beginning of the saga, Snowden's name was not even released. He did not come forward until days later (Gellman, Blake, & Miller, 2013). All that was known was that someone in the NSA had provided top secret, classified information to the public. This information showed that the NSA was tracking domestic communications, instead of only tracking foreign communications (Nakishima, Gellman, & Miller, 2013). That led many citizens to believe that their every word, whether it was on the phone or over the Internet and email, was being monitored and had come under scrutiny (Nakishima, Gellman, & Miller, 2013). Every major news outlet covered the issue, and so did social media. For a time, it appeared to be all the country, and other countries, could discuss. The main questions revolved around why Snowden made the choice to leak the information, why he chose now to do so, and what it meant for the people of the U.S. He was immediately branded a hero by some and a traitor by others, even before all the details had come to light.
Past NSA leakers also stepped up, mostly to say that they had already told the country that its government was not being honest, and this latest leak just reinforced that belief (Gross 2013). A9 Since information had been leaked from the NSA in the past, these leakers argued that what Snowden did only gave more evidence to the argument that the NSA has been violating citizens' privacy on a widespread level for a long time (Gross, 2013). Former NSA employee Thomas Drake spoke at the Computer, Freedom and Privacy Conference in Washington, D.C., and was quoted as saying "We need to confront the reality that we have a secret government that's not operating in our best interests" (Gross, 2013). Drake believes that this issue is not just about being an American, but about "…what it means to be a citizen" (Gross, 2013). Drake was indicted on 10 felony counts for past leaks, but those were later dropped. His belief is that the U.S. Government has been disregarding the Constitution since the 9/11 attacks took place, and that the NSA is only a part of the problem. Not having any checks and balances on the power the NSA has is a serious breach of civil liberties, according to another former NSA employee, William Binney (Gross, 2013). Both Binney and Drake argue that they have issued warnings in the past about the type of surveillance Snowden addressed, but that there have not been any significant changes made in the NSA or other agencies.
Now that the information has been released, it seems that changes will need to be made. However, if what Binney and Drake have said is correct, past warnings went completely unheeded (Gross, 2013). It is no secret that people in the U.S. are concerned about privacy and spying, but there is little they can do about it. Very few of them live "off the grid" full time, where they do not have bank accounts, credit cards, and ties to the power company and other entities. As long as a person's name and information is "in the system," there is a possibility of the government locating them and performing surveillance on them and their activities. While the understanding of this is not new, it is the idea that phone and email communication are being monitored when people have done nothing wrong or suspicious that does not sit well with many Americans (Gellman & Markon, 2013). Whether they have something to hide is irrelevant, in the context of whether they feel their privacy and civil liberties are being violated. The government's image has also been tarnished, and the Obama Administration has spent time on damage control based on the leaks that have come to light. Snowden has changed the political landscape, at least for the time being.
Whether C1 Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor still remains to be seen, and will likely be something that has to be decided on an individual and personal basis. He certainly brought information to the surface, and chose to do so even knowing that his life would never be the same. It is quite possible that he will never again be allowed to live in the United States as a free man, and will have to spend the rest of his life in another country. That was his choice, but what of the vast number of people who remain in the United States and have no desire to leave? They are left with the knowledge that their government may be monitoring their communications, even though they have done nothing to raise "red flags" or show that they may be involved with terrorist activities. The loss of civil liberties and privacy in the U.S. was what Snowden was trying to point out. The way he went about it was shocking to many, and not something that most people would ever consider doing. He also fled the country before the story broke, which many people see is the act of a traitor or a coward who refused to face the penalty for what he had done. He knew his actions were illegal, despite his reasons for doing them. In time, however, the leaking of this information may result in changes to the NSA and other agencies that will help to protect the privacy of the American people. Whether that will happen or whether the surveillance will continue is not something that can be known at this time.
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