It was last Wednesday, our first afternoon in Berlin. Struggling to stay awake against the effects of losing a night’s sleep by flying across the Atlantic, we found a peaceful cafe with outdoor seating along the banks of the Spree River right in the heart of Berlin for a late lunch. Once our 40-something waitress determined we were American, she became quite talkative, explaining that she had spent time in Florida doing winter waitressing jobs and asking where we were from. When we had finished eating, she approached the table to begin clearing and asked “May I ask you a political question?” Anticipating something about the President, the economy, maybe health care we invited her inquiry. “What do you think about Edward Snowden.” I almost blurted out “Who?” but how could I not be aware of America’s most recent traitor or patriot, depending on one’s point of view.
Roxane (my wife and traveling companion) and I answered simultaneously and similarly: neither of us were all that concerned by his revelations since we assumed the government was conducting that type of surveillance anyway. (By way of background, when we first met back in the early 1980s, Roxane and I were both serving in US Army intelligence units in Germany that were doing the kind of electronic intelligence gathering that we’re still not supposed to talk about). We asked the waitress what she and others in Germany thought of Snowden. “He is a great hero” was her reply although she seemed a bit disappointed by our lack of concern (not all that disappointed though because when she spotted us back at the cafe on our final night in Berlin, she rushed over and greeted us like long-lost friends).
In retrospect, our Berlin waitress’s celebration of Snowden’s disclosures should not have been surprising. She lives in a country, after all, that is just two decades removed from two successive regimes that elevated spying on their own citizens to levels unimaginable to us. And running afoul of the government meant death in the case of the Nazis and prison terms and loss of economic security under the Communists.
So what exactly was it that Edward Snowden disclosed? As I understand it, he revealed that the National Security Agency is tracking all conversations, voice, video and typed, made by everyone, everywhere. They’re not monitoring the content of the communications (although they have that capability). They are monitoring who is talking with whom. If you make frequent phone calls to someone in Pakistan, they make note of that. And if the person at the other end is a suspected terrorist, they will note who else you are talking to here in the US. They may even request a warrant from a Federal court for permission to see what it is you are saying to these others. If you are just calling Espresso Pizza to order a large pepperoni for pick-up, they won’t pay attention to that.
While I’m concerned about this process, I’m not outraged by it. I greatly value the protections provided to us by the Constitution, but the Constitution is a living document that has to evolve as society evolves. The means of communication available to us today are flexible and ubiquitous and have greatly improved our quality of life. But they’ve also made it easier for bad guys to avoid detection. Not that we needed a reminder of the effects of a terrorist attack, but we sure received one with the Boston Marathon bombing. Communications surveillance didn’t stop that one; but I suspect it has stopped others. To me, that counts for a lot as does the fact that this program is overseen by all three branches of our government. Show me an actual instance where the information has been abused and I’ll be more concerned. For now, the practical benefits outweigh the threat of theoretical abuses. Besides, as I am eerily reminded every time a targeted ad pops up in my internet browser, corporate America is already monitoring our every online move in the name of capitalism without a lot of showings of outrage; why shouldn’t we tolerate the government doing the same to protect us from terrorists?
As for Snowden, until I see evidence of actual abuses of this information, I don’t see him as a hero. Traitor is too strong and inaccurate a word to use to describe him. Suffice it to say that he has probably done grave damage to our ability to detect and prevent terrorist attacks. What I’ve written above is based on a very general understanding of the program involved. Snowden disclosed many details both substantive and technical. Electronic intelligence is a precarious commodity. As soon as the bad guy realizes you are able to monitor his communications, he can easily change the means of communicating and cut off your information flow. That’s why the product of these programs and the very existence of these programs is so highly classified. I may not have scrutinized the details of what was disclosed by Snowden, but I am certain the bad guys did.