Steven R. Hurst
Published — Saturday 13 July 2013
Last update 13 July 2013 3:19 am
In one sense, Edward Snowden, the leaker of National Security Agency secrets, is in rare company: He’s one of fewer than a dozen people charged under World War I-era espionage law in the near-century of its existence. The law was seldom used before Barack Obama became president. His administration has now used it seven times.
But Snowden is hardly unique. He is in the company of hundreds of others caught up in the long history of tension between the constitutionally guaranteed rights of US citizens and government actions that abridge those rights in the name of national security.
The 30-year-old Snowden has admitted leaking details of confidential NSA surveillance programs to news organizations. His backers insist he is a whistleblower, a loyal American who acted to unmask government overreach that was trampling citizens’ rights to privacy and free speech.
Among his supporters is Daniel Ellsberg, perhaps the most famous American whistleblower.
“This wholesale invasion of Americans’ and foreign citizens’ privacy does not contribute to our security; it puts in danger the very liberties we’re trying to protect,” Ellsberg, wrote last month in the Guardian, the British newspaper that first published Snowden’s material. Ellsberg was charged 42 years ago with espionage, among other crimes, for leaking the Pentagon Papers, the government study that cast a deeply negative light on the Vietnam War. He never went to trial after his case became intertwined with the Watergate wrongdoings of the Richard Nixon administration. Snowden’s detractors, especially the Obama administration, assert that his leaks harmed US security and made it easier for America’s enemies — like stateless Al-Qaeda terrorist operators — to avoid the never-blinking eye of Washington surveillance. The charges brought against Snowden could land him in prison for the remainder of his life if he is ever captured.
Snowden has been in the transit zone of a Moscow airport since June 23.
Defending his administration’s information gathering and tough approach in handling leaks and whistle-blowing, Obama has said: “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.” Obama’s reasoning falls in line with actions by previous presidents who moved to diminish some constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. Notably, all of the most controversial actions happened during times of war. Obama and predecessor George W. Bush have had broad backing among Americans still shaken by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and far greater legal powers under the Patriot Act that was passed in response to the attacks.
But a new poll suggests that may be changing.
Quinnipiac University found that 55 percent of voters regard Snowden as a “whistleblower,” and 35 percent consider him to be a traitor. A plurality, 54 percent to 40 percent, of those surveyed also said government anti-terrorism efforts have gone too far in restricting civil liberties. Three years ago, a similar survey found 63 percent saying anti-terrorism activities didn’t go far enough, compared with 25 percent who disagreed.
“The massive swing in public opinion about civil liberties and governmental anti-terrorism efforts, and the public view that Edward Snowden is more whistleblower than traitor, are the public reaction and apparent shock at the extent to which the government has gone in trying to prevent future terrorist incidents,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
On its face, Obama’s administration would seem an unlikely one to step up use of the Espionage Act against leakers and whistle-blowers. He is a liberal Democrat and former constitutional law professor who pledged to make government more open.
His government’s use of the law has cast a chill on free speech and freedom of the press, said Kathleen McClellan, a lawyer at the Government Accountability Project, which represents two of the seven people charged with espionage.