In outing himself as the source behind the stories about massive government surveillance programs, Edward Snowden brought global attention to himself, which may or may not have been his intention. The story certainly has shifted, with the media now focusing on Mr. Snowden’s past, his whereabouts and his future. Bloggers and talk-show hosts furiously debate whether Mr. Snowden is a traitor or a hero.
That’s unfortunate, because Mr. Snowden’s personal story should be a simple footnote in the larger narrative of government overreach in the name of national security. The surveillance program that Mr. Snowden shed light on may have been common knowledge on Capitol Hill (some members of Congress were briefed on the program), but it came as a shock to most Americans and to hundreds of millions around the globe whose personal data was caught up in the security sweep.
Some might argue that in the post-9/11 world, only the naïve would think that their cellphone calls and emails were beyond the reach of government eavesdroppers. Over the last dozen years, we have allowed government unprecedented access to our private lives, and we have done so because we believed that the fight against terrorism required a suspension, if not elimination, of basic civil liberties.
The Bush administration used the Patriot Act to expand government surveillance of our lives. And now we know that the National Security Agency has been compiling data based on phone calls and online communications. President Obama assures us that the government isn’t listening to our phone calls. Really? Is that the best defense he can muster?
It’s time the nation had a genuine debate over the liberties we have sacrificed in the name of national security. Americans cannot and should not resign themselves to routine government surveillance as the new normal in an admittedly frightening world of globalized terrorism. Massive government intrusions into the private lives of hundreds of millions of law-abiding citizens are more than unnecessary. They are gross violations of the nation’s founding ideals.
It is the solemn duty of the federal government to do what it can to protect Americans against terrorism. But it should not be allowed to rummage through the private lives of hundreds of millions under the guise of protecting liberty and freedom.