My current ethics observations on the unfolding NSA story:
- I do not have enough facts to conclude that what NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden did was truly heroic, but if one is going to be a whistleblower, Snowden did it the ethical way. Snowden decided not to hide his identity, and accepted responsibility for his actions. If his motives are as he has represented them-—“I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions,” but “I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant,” he wrote in a note accompanying his first set of leaked documents—-then he acted courageously and selflessly. Whether or not he also acted responsibly depends on whether he correctly weighed the possible harm of his leak against its benefits. Since its benefits include exposing what may well be ruled to be an unconstitutional and overly broad violation of citizens’ rights, I’m not certain any harm would sufficiently outweigh them in ethical balancing.
- If it is true, as he says, that Snowden himself had the power to examine private communications of citizens who were not suspected of any crime, then the representations of Sen. Feinstein, the President and others that the NSA program was reasonable and not an abuse of power is not only untrue, but a lie. Snowden is a high school dropout, a consultant, about whose judgment, reliability and trustworthiness the NSA knew next to nothing, and what they thought they knew was obviously wrong, since he betrayed the agency. If such massive power to invade private communications and thoughts is casually placed in the hands of such an individual by a security agency, what other faceless future power-abusers have been similarly armed?
- President Obama’s statement that “I welcome this debate and I think it’s healthy for our democracy,” is obviously disingenuous. If he welcomed the debate, then he would insisted that the public knew enough to debate the wisdom of such sweeping intrusions on privacy before it was revealed, not by his orders, but by the action of a leaker. If he thought it was healthy for our democracy, then why did he unhealthily allow the program to be kept secret?
- “Your duly elected representatives have consistently been informed,” was another misleading statement, a.k.a. lie, in Obama’s remarks, one that has been echoed by Feinstein and other members of Congress specializing in intelligence gathering efforts. Listening yesterday to member after member protest that they were not informed, it is clear that what the President should have said, and presumably knows, is that elected Representatives and Senators had access to information about the program if they sought it, asked for it, and suspected it existed. That’s not the same as being “informed,” just as the fact that the Affordable Care Act was available to be read doesn’t mean that the members of Congress who voted for it actually read it. The President’s deceitful intent was to make the public think that the members of Congress complaining about the surveillance knew about it all along. They did not.
- George Will on ABC Sunday Morning yesterday: “This is where the IRS scandal metastasizes into a national security scandal because I’m sure I’m not the only American saying, looking at the NSA information gathering saying, ‘Well, this would really be a problem if we had the kind of government that say unleashes the IRS on political opponents. Oh, come to think about it, we do have that kind of government.’ And therefore the willingness to trust the executive branch is today minimal and should be.” Exactly! ( I wrote essentially the same thing several days ago.) If this Executive maintains such loose supervision and quality control over the I.R.S., why should the President’s assurances that the even greater power in the hands of consultants like Snowden won’t be abused be met by anything but ridicule?
- Also on the Sunday talks shows, the much-repeated defense of the President’s 180 degree reversal of his position on national security and anti-terrorism measures from those of the Senator and candidate that accused President Bush of outrageous civil rights incursions was this: “Well, candidates and Senators don’t know what’s really going on, so when they get into office and understand the real job, they have to change.” Fair enough…except that the people who voted for Barack Obama specifically and intentionally voted for a man who said he rejected secret surveillance, rejected rendition, and rejected endless imprisonment without trial in Guantanamo…and now he’s killing Americans abroad using drone strikes and cheerleading the gathering of communications data on everyone who uses a phone or the internet. That man, to be blunt, was a fraud, and probably knew it at the time. What’s the excuse? Everybody does it? Bush approved of a bailout against the conservative principles he championed as a candidate? Obama can do no wrong? Go ahead, lie to us, it’s in our best interests? This same President likes to tell us that elections matter, and that his election was a mandate to do certain things. If so, it was also a mandate not to do some things. I don’t care to hear that rhetoric again.
- How can the President not fire Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who responded this way to Congressional questioning in March?
SEN. RON WYDEN: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
CLAPPER: No, sir.
WYDEN: It does not?
CLAPPER: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.
This was a lie. There is no other way to interpret it but as a lie. We now know that the NSA gathers all manner of data on millions of Americans, and that there is nothing unwitting about it. Moreover, Clapper is lying still! In a National Journal interview to “clarify” his remarks, Clapper said, apparently with a straight face,
“What I said was, the NSA does not voyeuristic ally pore through U.S. citizens’ e-mails. I stand by that.”
Really? Is THAT what he said? Clapper said that the NSA doesn’t gather “any type of data at all,” not that it doesn’t “voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens’ e-mails.” He cannot claim that what he meant was completely different than what he in fact said, especially since it wouldn’t have been responsive to the Senator’s question. The public can’t trust such a man. The public can’t trust an agency overseen by such a man.
- The public also can’t trust a President who allows such a man to be responsible for such an extensive intelligence gathering program. Of course, as with Napolitano, Holder, and other untrustworthy appointees in his Administration, Obama will take no action. Accountability is an ethical concept alien to the Obama Administration.
- It is time to stop ironically quoting President Obama’s campaign promise to make his administration “the most transparent” ever. He didn’t mean it. It was puffery and empty rhetoric, like so much else. This has been obvious for a long time, and even the President’s bitter-ender supporters should acknowledge that this is one of the least transparent, most insular, cover-up minded Presidencies since, yes, Nixon, in part because the leadership and management are so inept that there are lots of messes to cover up.
- Sen. Rand Paul says he is going to work to get the NSA program before the U.S. Supreme Court. Good for him. That’s where it belongs.
- The various scandals coming to light now are linked, and deserve to be viewed as a whole, a panoramic snap-shot of this Administration’s values and trustworthiness. The Benghazi talking points deceit showed how little the Administration trusts the public with information they have a right to know, and how determined it was to hide facts that might cause voters to doubt the competence and claims of a candidate who should have been doubted. The I.R.S. scandal showed how incompetent the oversight of powerful government agencies was and is, and also the evasiveness and, again, lack of transparency infecting the administration. The NSA revelations showed that civil rights incursions go beyond a few “rogue agents” in the I.R.S., and reflect a Presidential casualness about sacrificing core American values for “the greater good.” It also showed why this Administration fears leaks so much, and why it attempted, in the abuse of reporters at the AP and Fox, to criminalize the act of investigative journalism to intimidate journalists from working with other Snowdens. It should embarrass the once vigorous American news industry that a British newspaper broke the NSA story.
- You, know, I feel for Chris Matthews and all the resolute, Jumbo-ignoring Obama supporters who have pushed his mythology from the beginning, and I sense their agony at feeling slowly cornered by the ugly truth, as well as the always unpleasant discovery that those you detest to the very core of your being were right all along, and you were wrong. But at least home, home on MSNBC, where the Sharptons and antelopes play, the discouraging words are now returning back to accusations of racism, always this President’s shiny Teflon shield. It’s unethical, embarrassing and offensive. It always was, but now it has the tinge of lashing out in desperation while refusing to accept unavoidable fact. It should stop now.