As generalizations of political parties and ideologies go, Tom McClintock's support of amnesty for NSA leaker Edward Snowden, as he recently told Channel 3 (KCRA), defies expectation. Conservatives generally think Snowden a traitor while many liberals see him as a patriot.
Who likes "traitriot"?
But McClintock's call for Snowden to return stateside under immunity from prosecution is sound.
"As a practical matter," he told me, "I'd much rather have him in America talking to Americans than in Russia talking to Russians. More importantly: Congress was lied to about the existence of the NSA program that seized the phone and Internet records of millions of Americans without a warrant."
Snowden's revelations about our government's massive data-mining operation demands sobering contemplation of a critical question: Should we surrender constitutionally-enshrined liberties for the government's promise of security against terror?
"Snowden specifically released information that shows a direct violation of the Fourth Amendment," says McClintock, "which requires that before the government may invade your privacy or seize your records, it first has to establish probable cause to believe that you have committed a crime."
And the government, as we have learned this summer, has been actively and warrantlessly collecting Americans' private digital data as far back as 2001.
Yet many lawmakers preferred to shoot the messenger. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina urged the U.S. to chase Snowden to "the ends of the earth."
"I don't think running is a noble thought," said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "He could've stayed and faced the music."
You mean face the same government that wouldn't face Americans about the extent of its surveillance program?
When Snowden said an analyst could "wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president," U.S. officials vehemently denied it. Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called Snowden a liar. "It's impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do," Rogers said.
But NSA training documents touted how analysts could collect "nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet," from the content of emails and Facebook messages to web browsing and search histories and do so by filling out a simple form that isn't reviewed by any court.
"We were told the information was only used to track down terrorists," said McClintock, "but Reuters then detailed how NSA data has been routinely shared with both the IRS and the DEA, and the origin of that information is hidden from judges, juries and defendants through an Orwellian program called Parallel Construction, where the circumstances by which the evidence was obtained is fabricated."
Lying? That would be James Clapper, director of national intelligence, who has admitted lying to Congress about NSA surveillance of American citizens. NSA Director Keith Alexander declared, "We don't hold data on U.S. citizens," while accusing Snowden of violating the trust of an agency that violated the Constitution. Alexander's justification: Defending our country is an "extremely important mission."
Protecting the country is a very "high duty," McClintock agrees, and yes, Snowden violated important anti-espionage laws, "but there's a higher law," says the congressman, "and that's the Constitution. Government officials take an oath to protect the Constitution. Doesn't say anything about protecting the country. The reason is, if we lose the Constitution, we've lost our country."
Our government, however, uses a little trick to hide their violations: They declare their actions classified. They claim their snooping has helped foil "dozens of potential terror plots" here and abroad, only they can't provide details because that's classified, and we should totally trust them on this.
After all, our president assures us that the FISA court, the secret body tasked with authorizing government requests for data collection, protects against such abuses. But the court's chief justice admitted just last week the court isn't capable of investigating those abuses. Instead, it's "forced to rely upon the accuracy of the information that is provided to the court," which means someone can tell the court anything it wants and the court hasn't the resources to check if the information is true.
"If the government can violate the Bill of Rights, and ensure that violation remains secret, then by definition those rights become unenforceable and those who violate them become unaccountable," McClintock said. "How do you preserve the Constitution if the violations of that Constitution are kept secret?"
All Snowden did was reveal how our government was violating the Constitution. What kind of government is it if its members think such whistle-blowing treasonous?
Americans have a fundamental right to know how our government is monitoring us and what it considers public and private data. How can we have a public debate on how much privacy we're willing to sacrifice in the name of security if we don't know how much privacy we have to begin with?
Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.