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Leaks and Firestorms

In class with Professor Cameron Munter


In today’s class, students discuss the firestorm ignited by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks of top secret documents last summer. Among the questions raised are: who decides what are legitimate targets for domestic and foreign surveillance; why some secrets should be protected; and whether information gathering by corporations like Google and Facebook should be part of a broader privacy debate.

Munter: I was at the Rand Corporation yesterday on a panel about secrecy and privacy. One side, I had an FBI agent, and on the other an ACLU lawyer, and I realized the reason they invited me was to be sure they didn’t rip each other’s throats out. On the domestic side, they talked about privacy and the Constitution. I suggested that many of these issues should not be limited to domestic policy, but should be part of foreign policy. I’m curious what you think of the (Snowden) revelations about spying on the American people.

Ben: If we are truly at war, we are engaged in a war on terrorism, we have a duty to understand the lay of the land; it’s our job to have a complete awareness of exactly where the enemy is, and understand the lines of communication and organization.

Munter: Let me go back to the first thing you said. You guys think we’re at war. Yes, no?

Aidan: I think it’s almost antithetical to democracy to accept that we can be on a constant war footing. Because it is true when you are in a war, democracy affords certain executive powers that are supposed to be temporary. The problem is this war has been going on for more than a decade, and it can do that because it doesn’t affect our daily lives. Mass spying on citizens inside the country and out isn’t even seen as surprising anymore.

Ben: Are you talking more about spying on foreign leaders? I’m talking about domestic spying. Foreign spying in general is kind of an accepted thing.

Munter: So this doesn’t surprise you?

Ben: Not as much, but domestic spying gets me because it’s shrouded in deep secrecy. The way the administration acted after Snowden’s revelations, trying to tarnish the guy’s name and trying to underplay how big the domestic spying programs were. The whole process itself; there is no transparency anywhere. It seems very antithetical to democracy.

Munter: There is kind of a carve-out that in exceptional times you can have exceptional measures. I don’t know if any of you know the state song of Maryland (hums it), and it has the words, the despot’s heel is at thy door/ Avenge the patriotic gore that flecked the streets of Baltimore.

Now the despot in the song is Abraham Lincoln, There were riots against Lincoln. He put the legislature in jail so they wouldn’t secede from the union. So here is our hero Abraham Lincoln who, basically for the period of the Civil War, was unconstitutional. We can say exceptional circumstances, pretty serious times. We can say 9/11 was a pretty serious time.

Jack: When you frame it about taking away constitutional liberties and the Fourth Amendment and stuff, it sounds very serious and it is. But when you contextualize it in the terms that it’s not just government doing this, it’s the private sector as well. And that, honestly, is what scares me more.

Munter: You mean when you search something in Google and it gives you commentary about what you could buy?

Michael: Google’s and Facebook’s whole business model is to own your information and to sell it. And that worries me just as much if not more.

Tom: I guess where I draw the line is that Google and Facebook can’t put you on a watch list, but the NSA can, based on information that might not necessarily be suspicious, like a search history.

Munter: What you’re saying is that we’re getting it wrong if we only worry about constitutional issues, serious or not serious as they might be, because there is something bigger, which is the technological issue, which is both inside and outside government.

Aidan: It’s such a slippery slope that there are going to be abuses and that brings up the question of either you have to have one extreme, no surveillance, or you have to recognize that it will be abused, and I think most Americans aren’t willing to have no surveillance.

Munter: So there is the permanent war footing argument and the violation of civil liberties argument. Obviously, the American public want something in between; they want to be safe and they’re willing to pay a certain price in order to be safe, but they don’t want to lose the essence of what it means to be Americans and have freedoms, which is not satisfying intellectually but pretty realistic.

Charlotte: I was going to say that it’s really a generational thing. My parents are vehemently opposed to wiretapping, domestic surveillance, where most of the people I’ve talked to don’t really care.

Munter: Because they’re used to it.

Charlotte: Yeah, we’ve grown up where everything is totally public. When it comes down to the message Snowden is making about why this is wrong, most people in my generation probably don’t relate.

Munter: There are reasons why we keep secrets. If I’m in Iraq or Libya, people tell you things in confidence, and they tell you things at the risk of their lives, and you keep that confidence because that’s your job.

Ben: When you say secrets are kept for the reason, the question is who is deciding the reason for that. Obviously, in the example you mentioned it’s for national security, people’s jobs, but I think when it strays to things that would portray the U.S. poorly or things that the U.S. is doing that are illegal, then I think that borders the line when secrets should be revealed.

Nick: My problem with Snowden was for him to take this issue into his own hands and to leak it to the public. I think it’s not really up to an individual to make that call.

Munter: Arguing uncharacteristically on Snowden’s behalf, isn’t that what a citizen is supposed to do, to some extent? Isn’t civil disobedience, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, part of our tradition?

Nick: Unless you have a viable alternative like a legitimate pathway to share that information.

Munter: But is the issue here simply the amount of information we’re gathering? The whole point of 9/11 was that domestic and foreign intelligence had different pieces of intel and didn’t bring it together, which was part of what led to the Homeland Security that we know and love. Now that we have that, is there such a massive amount of material to deal with that no one can pick up his or her eyes and ask where we are going strategically?