Sunday, June 09, 2013

What Snowden sees, what Obama sees

Edward Snowden,the whistleblower on the NSA's surveillance programs, is brave, serious-minded, and capable, and was very selective in what he exposed, determined not to endanger individuals. I am glad he revealed what he did, to paraphrase James Fallows, though I'm not yet sure what I think the government ought to refrain from doing in its efforts to thwart terrorist plots. I just want to take a second to try to hold two ideas in the mind at once.

The first is this, from Snowden, in an exchange with Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman (Gellman's debriefing is a  remarkable read, as is a Q&A between Snowden and his contacts at the Guardian). Asked, "Did he impute evil motives to his former colleagues, or the White House?", Snowden responded:
“Analysts (and government in general) aren’t bad guys, and they don’t want to think of themselves as such,” he replied. But he said they labored under a false premise that “if a surveillance program produces information of value, it legitimizes it."
It is possible to agree that this premise is false -- as I do, for example when information is gained by torture -- and still find it difficult to imagine circumstances under which any person capable of gaining the U.S. presidency would put the brakes on metadata collection, unless he was absolutely convinced that the collection did not materially increase the odds of thwarting a terrorist plot or other security threat (the focus of my last post).  

Not to let Obama off the hook, but the responsibility to find the right limits and/or oversight is collective. The executive branch is no likelier to regulate itself than a bank (of course Obama, as a Senator, signed on to weakening FISA constraints).   The best we can hope for from the executive branch in restraining its powers is that it adhere to limits imposed by Congress and the courts.

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