Point of View

Is Snowden a patriot or traitor? Depends on whether loyalty is to country or its people

August 29, 2013 

This summer, any weekly reel of headlines about Edward Snowden and the NSA has served as an embarrassment to the very idea of integrity in public service under the national security state. As soon as President Obama glibly assures us that the government is not listening to our phone calls or the NSA’s Gen. Keith Alexander and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee) make broad assertions about a legally correct bureaucratic record on surveillance, new revelations undermine the probity of government at the highest levels.

Public lies are being patronizingly peddled. Do they take us for fools? The president appears to be a captive audience for his latest intelligence briefing in a sealed-off area of public policy. No one is being sacked for runaway surveillance programs. In another historical context, impeachment would be more broadly discussed.

In the world at large, people are debating whether Snowden is a traitor or a patriot. But the question has to be secondary to this: To whom do intelligence civil servants and contractors owe their loyalty? To state or to country? They are not the same. To the national security bureaucracies that employ them or to the people that the state – in a democracy – is supposed to protect? They are not identical, by a long shot.

Our leaders continue to circle the wagons in their zealous manhunt for Snowden, trapped in their own webs of secrecy and conspiracy theories. The very culture of the national security state is under assault. The “iron triangle” of the White House, Congress (witness Feinstein’s severe case of clientitis) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is under siege. Many careers are at stake. The government’s very authority has been placed in jeopardy.

The interests of the state do not automatically line up with those of the country. Protecting “the homeland” serves as something of a smokescreen – in the “company town” of Washington and even in state and local security agencies.

As someone who served in foreign policy positions in the U.S. Senate and in several agencies of the executive branch, I find this conclusion painful. But, as a country, we are at a critical crossroads in the debate over liberty versus security.

William E. Jackson Jr. of Davidson served under Presidents John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter and has been a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution.

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