Is Edward Snowden a traitor or courageous patriot?
If your primary focus is our Fourth Amendment right to privacy, you likely feel Snowden is vindicated in his actions, which resulted in the disclosure that the government was collecting metadata on Americans and might nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize.
If your primary focus is national security, you likely feel Snowden is a traitor who should be brought back and tried, or preferably, taken to the town square and “hung for tyranny.”
There is very little middle ground in the public debate.
However, a meaningful, fact-based debate is critical as Congress works to carefully reform the National Security Agency to protect privacy while continuing successful programs critical to ensuring our safety in a dangerous post-9/11 world.
Most Americans believe the NSA database of phone calls and e-mails was accessed regularly and at will by any individual who works for NSA and that the content of those personal calls and e-mails was freely offered.
Yet out of the hundreds of billions of records stored by NSA, the metadata information was accessed only 281 times in 2013, and by only 21 people who had proper authorization and pre-approval from the FISA Court. Unless you had contact with a known terrorist based outside the United States, the NSA wasn’t accessing your metadata.
New bipartisan reforms approved recently by the House of Representatives go further, prohibiting the NSA from collecting bulk phone records and requiring case-by-case approval for future investigations requiring access to specific phone data, which will now be held by private companies. If approved by the Senate and signed by President Obama, the NSA will no longer capture or store your personal telephone and e-mail records.
More than 50 terrorist attacks have been prevented because of the intelligence data gleaned from the NSA program. As part of my investigation into the NSA metadata controversy, I personally reviewed classified documents related to each thwarted attack, of which 12 were planned to spill blood on U.S. soil and 24 planned to wreak havoc in Europe.
In that light, is there a need for continued NSA access to phone records, albeit only on a case-by-case basis?
This February, I took that question to a meeting of European Ambassadors at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. During the conference, I asked three questions:
1. What is the current worldwide terrorist threat?
2. What is America’s role in addressing and mitigating this threat?
3. What role does intelligence data collection play in this process, given the multiple platforms for attack including physical assets, cyber, chemical, biological, nuclear and the electric grid?
Each ambassador acknowledged the threat was greater today than before 9/11, with al Qaeda and other extreme Islamist terrorists stronger, more sophisticated, and having a dozen or more training camps throughout the Middle East and Africa.
As to the role of the United States, they felt our efforts were primary and essential for peace and security around the world.
Regarding the intelligence-gathering, their consensus was, “We want privacy, but we must have your intelligence.” As a European foreign minister stated to me, “Without U.S. intelligence, we are blind.”
We cannot yield to those loud but misguided voices who view the world as void of the deadly and destructive intentions of unrelenting terrorists. The number of terrorism-related deaths worldwide doubled between 2012 and 2013, jumping from 10,000 to 20,000 in just one year. Now is not the time to stand down.
Those who embrace an altruistic worldview should remember that vigilance and strength have deterred our enemies in the past. That same commitment is required today to defeat those who seek to destroy us and our way of life. We must make careful, prudent use of all available technology to counter their sophisticated operations if we are to maintain our freedom and liberties.
While Snowden may have genuine concerns for civil liberties, his damaging disclosure to our adversaries of 1.8 million top secret documents, including those detailing critical military strategy, far overshadows his stated privacy objectives. Acting as a traitor, Snowden has undermined our national security and the defense of the very freedoms he claims to support.
Now, the Senate must quickly take action on this bipartisan legislation to protect our Fourth Amendment rights while preserving the security of our country. May clear minds and foresight prevail as we engage in a thoughtful analysis of ongoing threats and how intelligence data impacts our national security consistent with constitutional rights of privacy.
Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., is chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and a member of the House Committee on Financial Services.