The Founding Fathers were keen to ensure that while they created a strong enough central government capable of defending itself from foreign adversaries and organizing itself economically, that central government never became too strong to threaten individual liberty. Over the years that balance point has shifted about a bit - in times of war or threats to national security we've seen restrictions tighten a bit and then relaxed, then sometimes tightened again. Mostly we've seen a healthy debate over the appropriate size of the federal government as we try to adjust to changing times and circumstances, seeing new ways the federal government can help the disadvantaged without undermining the basic impulse for people to help themselves first.
All of which brings us, if somewhat circuitously, to the most recent and current question that attempts to articulate where this balance point should be - the intriguing and yet to be fully resolved case involving the former contract employee for the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden, and his revelations about the surveillance effort the U.S. government has been mounting over the years ostensibly to interdict and interrupt foreign and domestic would-be terrorists.
To some, Snowden is a hero, a whistle-blower to used his access to the inner workings of the government to pull aside the veil on an electronic eavesdropping effort involving Internet searches and wireless communications that was on a far larger scale than many average citizens might have imagined. That effort, as we now know, enlisted several of the major Internet corporations like Google, Yahoo and Facebook, as well as telecommunications carriers to monitor their traffic for hints to possible terrorist activity.
To others he's a traitor, or at best a naive, misguided idealist who failed to grasp the bigger picture and the long-term ramifications and consequences of his actions. As time goes on, that's a view that's becoming harder to deny, or at least balance evenly against unveiling the secret surveillance program.
Ultimately, it comes down to a question of trust- do you trust the government to more or less act as they claim to be doing, or is their a more sinister, Big Brother agenda in play here? That would be hugely troubling if so, although it's worth remembering that is one of the few bipartisan efforts that have continued across two administrations, the Bush and Obama ones.
It's always hard to justify something on the basis of something that didn't happen - in this case a tharwted terrorist act on the scale of 9/11 that didn't happen. Did the twin programs of telecom and Internet surveillance in fact stop such an attempt? Maybe. We'll never know for sure, or at least, for many years into the future, when the full historical archives are opened.
There are many factors to consider here, from the role 'big data' now plays in our lives to how a 29 year old gets clearance to handle sensative material without being properly or fully vetted.
More troubling is the massive propaganda coup that Snowden handed to two of the most odious regimes around these days - Russia and China. Just as the Obama administration was finally screwing up its courage to confront China over its outrageous industrial espionage and cyber hacking - if not cyber warfare - comes the revelation that we've done a bit of that ourselves. The Chinese must be laughing all the way to the forbidden Great Firewall.
It's an even bigger gift to one of the truly evil world leaders of today - Russia's Vladimir Putin. Anyone who thinks both the Russian and Chinese equivalents of the NSA and the C.I.A. haven't drained the contents of Snowden's four laptops onto which he downloaded the contents of the documents he pilfered after having signed legal agreements to keep those secure is more naive than the soon-to-be-unfortunate Mr. Snowden is. We say that because it won't be long before his usefulness to his temporary hosts will be exhausted and their attention will return to avoiding a long-term strain in relations with the U.S.
Meanwhile, who knows how many people's lives may have been endangered, or how many special operatives who trusted us have been jeopardized or compromised.
It's a sad case all around. No one likes the idea of Big Brother watching, but really.... there was another way to make the point, without becoming a tool of the folks who wrote the book on that.