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How to Talk About the NSA with Your Uncle

A look at how Edward Snowden sparked a national debate about privacy.

Credit: Princeton Patch
Credit: Princeton Patch

Edward J. Snowden was the runner-up for Time’s Man of the Year, but he may be the most likely subject of a political debate over the holidays. (Polite relatives often try to steer conversations away from talk of the president or Congress, whereas talking about Snowden doesn’t seem nearly as tactless.) The biggest source of trouble? If you’re sitting at a table with six relatives, someone will probably argue that the former National Security Agency (N.S.A.) contractor-turned-whistleblower is “a traitor,” and from there you could spend an hour in heated debate.

More news materialized this week when a task force, formed in August by President Obama to review N.S.A. surveillance practices, released its recommendations, including suggestions for major restrictions on N.S.A. surveillance. The president plans to review the recommendations over the holiday, but in the meantime, you’ve got your Uncle Larry to contend with.

Polling suggests the public is divided: Fifty-two percent of the respondents of a Washington Post / ABC News poll answered that he should be charged with a crime. However, a breakdown of the poll revealed that it’s younger Americans, aged 18-29, that don’t prioritize the interests of national security over a lack of privacy.

So, before your nephew and your aunt get into an argument, here’s a breakdown of issues to help you navigate or diffuse any tension.

1) An unexceptional guy: Only 30 years old, Snowden grew up in North Carolina and Maryland. He reportedly described himself as a “less than stellar” student, who studied computing at a Maryland community college. Snowden first worked for the N.S.A. as a security guard, and then later moved into IT work for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), working his way to N.S.A. contractor with high level security clearance.

2) What exactly happened?: This past summer, on June 5th, the British newspaper, The Guardian, published a story about the N.S.A.’s collection of phone records of millions of American Verizon users. Four days later, The Guardian identified its source as Snowden. It was revealed that Snowden had leaked secret N.S.A. documents to a small group of journalists that led to a maelstrom of exposure and bad press about agency’s spying practices both in the United States and internationally. This, in turn, bruised relations between the United States and many of its allies.

3) Why did he do it?: In an interview with Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian reporter who first broke the story, Snowden explained his decision to leak the top secret documents: “I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model.” Snowden’s critics cast him less as a man of convictions and more as a narcissist. The answer is probably somewhere in between. For the sake of your gathering, try to focus on the issues, not Snowden himself.

4) Snowden has the most polarizing supporters and defenders: Snowden’s supporters include celebrities like Oliver Stone, who said he “should be welcomed and offered asylum.” Meanwhile John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said he should “"swing from a tall oak tree” for what he did. Don’t get suckered into defending Bolton, Stone or any other divisive figure!

5) Comparisons to Pentagon Papers: Snowden has often been compared to Daniel Ellsberg, the former U.S. military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971, exposing the Johnson administration’s knowledge that casualties for the Vietnam War would be much higher than what the public was told. It’s a fair comparison, but you can take it either way. The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin contends that Snowden “wasn’t blowing the whistle on anything illegal; he was exposing something that failed to meet his own standards of propriety.”

Emily Bazelon disagrees noting that the comparison that matters is that we’re looking at two whistelblowers who exposed ugly truths: "Looking back 40 years, we treat harsh criticism of the Vietnam War as patriotic and foresighted. But Ellsberg must have sounded like any draft-dodger when he decided, as he wrote in his memoir, that the war was ‘mass murder.’”

6) Where’s he hiding? Before his identity as the whistleblower was revealed, Snowden left the United States. He’s been granted one year of asylum in Russia. His future remains uncertain. One N.S.A. official, Rick Ledgett, admits that because the extent of what Snowden managed to spirit out of the N.S.A. databases is unclear, a possible exchange of amnesty for the return of all documents should be considered. In the meantime, Snowden appears to be considering other countries, like Brazil, where he recently published a letter in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, pleading his case against the practices of the N.S.A.

7) The big question, should we step back?: President Obama will reportedly announce his verdict on recommended N.S.A. reforms when he returns to the White House in January. If he does curtail some of the N.S.A.’s power, it would be the first time the U.S. government had done so since 9/11.

This may be the biggest, least political N.S.A. question you can get your family to engage in: Is it time that we started to move back toward the privacy we had before 9/11?

Do you think that what Snowden did was heroic or criminal? Tell us your opinion in the comments or in a blog post.

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