These words from the author of the Declaration of Independence are worth contemplating in the era of Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency. Mr. Snowden, who stole 1.7 million documents from the NSA, offered last week to aid Brazil in a probe of how the United States spies on that country in exchange for permanent asylum. Writing from his temporary base in Russia, Snowden claimed the NSA program of data collection was never about fighting terrorism, but about economic spying, social control and diplomatic manipulation.
Meanwhile a federal judge in Washington has ruled the wholesale collection of Americans’ phone records probably violates the Constitution. And a presidential committee looking into the morass initiated by Mr. Snowden has recommended in its 300-page report ending the collection of phone records and a ban on undermining encryption.
So what would Mr. Jefferson have to say about all this? It’s a classic case of “chose your poison”: privacy versus secrecy, adhere to the law or protect the country. We, of course, have no way of knowing, but we suspect he would come down on Mr. Snowden for treason but wink at the idea of significantly limiting NSA data collection. After all, Mr. Snowden walked away from his NSA work in violation of the law with what’s been called “the keys to the kingdom.” This was referring specifically to information that would reveal vulnerabilities within U.S. intelligence gathering at the strategic level — that would be a road map for our adversaries on how to protect their information from the U.S. intelligence community’s view. So far Mr. Snowden has not revealed this information publicly — or for that matter most of what he stole — but who knows what he’s willing to do to save his hide as was suggested by his offer to help Brazil?
Even Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended the NSA program as legitimate, although he advocated controls that curb abuses, especially to avoid it becoming too politically tinged. Mr. Jefferson, we would suggest, probably would agree with that, and as was his wont, would work behind the scenes to craft a compromise that clearly protects the country.
To some Americans Edward Snowden is a hero, but given the damage his revelations have already done to our diplomatic relations and our standing in the world, we don’t agree. We think he is a scofflaw and a traitor. Yes, he is a whistle-blower, but there are laws protecting whistle-blowers so they don’t have to put the country in peril. Observing the law is one of the highest duties of a good citizen.
The fight against terrorism, both here and abroad, is ever-present and not about to go away. Terrorism puts us in danger of the loss of the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us. You have to look no further than the recent bomb plot at the Wichita airport to appreciate the importance of effective intelligence work.