Holtz – The more embarrassing, the harsher the punishment

Regular column from Jim Holtz from the June 4, 2014 Grand Forks Gazette.

Edward Snowden’s appearance in an interview with NBC journalist Brian Williams last week made it harder than ever for White House, congressional and military spokespersons to dismiss him by labelling him a traitor.

Of course, they are still trying.

Secretary of State John Kerry called him both a traitor and a coward, because he wouldn’t surrender to be tried for his crimes.

Snowden, who had worked under contract to the National Security Agency (NSA), copied and released to The New York Times, the Guardian, NBC and other reputable news organizations thousands of documents that revealed that the NSA had been spying on millions of U.S. citizens, secretly collecting massive amounts of data in violation of their constitutional rights.

Snowden said his motivation was patriotic, to reveal that his own government was trampling on the rights of its citizens. “The Fourth Amendment as it was written—no longer exists,” he said. “… Now all of our data can be collected without any suspicion of wrongdoing on our part, without any underlying justification. All of your private records, all of your private communications, all of your transactions, all of your associations, who you talk to, who you love, what you buy, what you read—all of those things can be seized and held by the government and then searched later for any reason, hardly— without any justification, without any real—oversight, without any real accountability for those who do wrong. The result is that the Fourth Amendment that was so strict—that we fought a revolution to put into place—now no longer has the same meaning that it once did. Now we have—a system of pervasive pre-criminal surveillance—where the government wants to watch what you’re doing just to see what you’re up to, to see what you’re thinking even behind closed doors.”

The New York Times received the Pulitzer Prize for the stories it wrote using the documents that Snowden provided. A federal court, reviewing the programs that Snowden exposed, labelled them likely unconstitutional and Orwellian, and Congress has moved to curtail the massive, bulk collection of data on average citizens.

Still, Kerry is certain he is a traitor and should be tried as such.

That is what happens when whistleblowers reveal U.S. federal government secrets: they are punished. The degree of punishment corresponds directly to 1) the level of importance that the affected government branch sees itself and 2) the level of illegality or degree of embarrassment that the revealed secrets represent.

Since no government department on Earth feels that it is more important than the American Defense Department and since there is hardly anything more illegal or embarrassing than being caught collecting the phone calls, e-mails, photos, etc. of an entire nation, well, Snowden is pretty well cooked. Especially since, as he pointed out in his interview, the usual rules of evidence, representation and due process don’t apply under the Espionage Act where you can’t argue that your actions were in the public interest, or defend yourself with any evidence that the government prosecution says is classified.

And, despite the government’s accusations, as Snowden added, “How can it be said that this harmed the country, when all three branches of government have made reforms as a result of it?”

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