It’s been nearly seven years since Edward Snowden shook the world by orchestrating the largest security leak in world history. Still today, little question remains as to how profoundly Snowden’s courageous actions impacted the conversation on mass surveillance not just within the U.S., but around the world.
"Of course I would like to return to the United States," said Snowden in a September 2019 interview with CBS. "But if I'm going to spend the rest of my life in prison, then one bottom line demand that we all have to agree to is at least I get a fair trial… The government wants to have a different kind of trial… They want to be able to close the courtroom. They want the public not to be able to know what's going on.”
As Congress argues over whether to renew the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) before the approaching expiration date of March 15 (an act that would allow federal officials to continue seizing business records by extending Section 215 of the Patriot Act), the time is now to understand why Snowden should be afforded a fair shot in the courtroom.
- The law being used against Snowden is outdated and un-American.
In June 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act in an attempt to prevent insubordination within the U.S. military and silence critics of America’s involvement in World War I. In his 1915 State of the Union address, President Woodrow Wilson begged Congress to pass the law, declaring, “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out… they are infinitely malignant, and the hand of our power should close over them at once.”
After the bill’s passage, antiwar activist Charles Schenck was arrested for distributing flyers encouraging men to resist Wilson’s draft. That same year, socialist Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison, stripped of his citizenship, and disenfranchised for life over a speech he made criticizing the war. In January 1919, the Supreme Court heard the cases Schenck v. United States and Debs v. United States, concluding that neither man’s arrest constituted a violation of the First Amendment.
Then, in 1973, the law was unsuccessfully used against economist Daniel Ellsberg, the man behind the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Following repeated attempts on part of intelligence officials to intimidate The New York Times into ceasing publication of the documents, an appellate court finally succeeded in temporarily ordering the newspaper to discontinue publication. While the courts eventually restored publication rights to the press, other victims of the Espionage Act throughout history have not been as fortunate, including journalist Victor L. Berger, activists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, former U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning, and former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) employee Henry Kyle Frese.
- The abuse of power Snowden exposed is only getting worse — much worse.
In reviewing the advances that have been made in recent decades towards the construction of an Orwellian national security state, it’s not overstating it to say what once seemed possible only on the ink-lettered pages of dystopian science fiction novels has entered the realm of reality.
A 2016 study from Georgetown University, for example, estimates that at least one in four state or local police departments in the U.S. now have access to facial recognition software. Coupled with the steady increase in surveillance cameras, it’s not difficult to see where the current trends are headed. In 2019, the estimated number of surveillance cameras in the U.S. stood at 70 million; experts now estimate this number to reach 85 million by 2021.
And when it comes to the data, the only country with a surveillance apparatus worthy of comparison to the U.S. is communist China, where police officers regularly sport facial recognition glasses and artificial intelligence to hunt down suspects and political enemies. Tragically, Beijing recently began weaponizing these technologies against the country’s Muslim and minority populations (particularly in the Xinjiang region).
Even considering the fact that China has more than four times the population of the U.S., however, the two countries stand neck-and-neck in terms of the number of cameras per individual; while China holds an average of one camera for every 4.1 people, the U.S. trails closely behind at 4.6. By a similar metric, the U.S. surpasses China with more closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras per person. To no surprise, this has predominantly impacted America’s major cities; Chicago, for instance, now has 30,000 surveillance cameras, equipped with night vision, facial recognition, and license plate-reading technology.
- The American people do not want mass surveillance.
Roughly 66 percent of Americans agree that “the potential risks outweigh the benefits” regarding government collection of data, according to polls released by the Pew Research Center in November 2019. Out of the same pool of respondents, 84 percent answered that they feel “very little or no control over the data collected about them by the government.”
A similar poll released by Morning Consult in December 2019 found that 79 percent of Americans believe “Congress should make crafting a bill to better protect consumers’ online data a priority,” while 65 percent answered that “data privacy is one of the biggest issues our society faces and legislation is needed to stop data breaches.”
- The American people deserve to know what their government is doing.
Ironically enough, it seems as though the American surveillance state wants everything monitored and scrutinized except itself. Shielding the so-called “intelligence community” from the public eye is a towering wall of government agencies, unaccountably bureaucratic review processes, and strict nondisclosure agreements designed to muzzle dissenters. One day after the release of Snowden’s memoir “Permanent Record” in September 2019, the Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit against him for alleged breaches in previous nondisclosure agreements.
Regardless of what people think of Snowden, it is irrefutable that, without others like him, a tremendous amount of our government’s failures and atrocities would go unseen (as untold scores likely already do). Without Daniel Ellsberg, the world would be oblivious to the true extent of Lyndon B. Johnson lies surrounding Vietnam. Without Mark Felt, Richard Nixon might have finished a second term as president. And without Edward Snowden, the realization that the American government is spying on its own citizens would have never occurred.
Politicians pay lip service to the Constitution. Snowden put his life on the line to defend the Fourth Amendment and the right to privacy for every American. The least we can do is offer him a fair trial.
Cliff Maloney is the president of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL).
*DISCLAIMER: For the record, Cliff Maloney is not the “Cliff” Snowden references in Permanent Record.