Edward Snowden’s leak of classified documents about NSA intelligence-gathering programs is a violation of the American people’s rights.
That’s right, while much of the coverage surrounding the NSA program has focused on what it means for individual rights and privacy, it’s actually the leak itself, not the program, that’s problematic.
We, as a public, have the right to defend ourselves from terrorist threats using advanced intelligence-gathering technology, and we have the right to keep the details of such programs classified. Individual rights are important, but so are collective rights that stem from individual rights. Without collective rights, we would have no freedom and no functioning government.
The NSA metadata program is not a case of the government versus the people but rather a case of the government acting for the people.
What is a democratic government, after all, but the collection of multiple individuals carrying out the will of the people?
In his “Second Treatise of Civil Government,” John Locke described a “state of nature” where people exist in complete autonomy without government. In such a state, no one has a rank authority over another, yet people in a state of nature are still not free from violations of their rights. Someone in a state of nature, thinking that there are no laws, could steal from another person, after all. So, Locke said, every individual has the right and responsibility to punish those criminals who violate the laws of nature.
“For the law of nature would,” Locke wrote, “as all other laws that concern men in this world, be in vain if there were nobody that in the state of nature had a power to execute that law, and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders.”
But if everyone went about punishing others on their own, there would be great potential for individuals to abuse their power in order to advance their self-interests. As Locke explained:
“I doubt not but it will be objected that it is unreasonable for men to be judges in their own cases, that self-love will make men partial to themselves and their friends; and, on the other side, ill-nature, passion, and revenge will carry them too far in punishing others, and hence nothing but confusion and disorder will follow. … I easily grant that civil government is the proper remedy for the inconveniences of the state of nature.”
Civil government is how we create a system of uniform laws to protect our individual rights while maintaining equality under the law.
Citizens organizing together create a government that protects and carries out their interests. Additionally, the government can carry out those programs that individuals on their own couldn’t carry out. The public creates a justice system to protect our individual rights from criminals, and we also create a military to protect our individual rights from organized foreign enemies. A single individual could not fight off a foreign military or an organized terrorist group like al-Qaeda.
Together, we have chosen to combat the threat of terrorism by vesting our government with greater investigatory and prosecutorial powers.
In 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act, and President Bush signed it into law, greatly expanding the government’s abilities to gather records and wiretap phone lines. Bush was awarded with a second term in 2004 after running a campaign largely focused on his anti-terrorism record.
In 2008, the voters sent Barack Obama to the White House months after he voted for an extension of the FISA Act, which allows for electronic surveillance.
In the wake of the NSA metadata revelations, a Pew/Washington Post poll found that 56% of Americans support the NSA tracking phone data in order to gather intelligence.
Americans have again and again affirmed their support for policies aggressively targeting terrorism, even when critics have brought up privacy arguments. We have the right as a public to have such programs in effect, and selfish individuals like Snowden do not have the right to take it upon themselves to recklessly leak classified information.