An Open Letter to President Trump:
After 9/11, I generally supported all of the Bush administration’s tough measures to protect the American people (enhanced interrogation, surveillance, drone attacks, black sites, etc.). I had little concern for what our government needed to do to members of al-Qaeda to keep us safe.
I am still not particularly concerned about the rights of terrorists. That said, I thought it went without saying that there should be a different standard for dealing with Americans.
The baseless Russian collusion conspiracy was only one of many examples of Americans being unfairly targeted by the federal government. As early as 1798, the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which criminalized certain criticism of the federal government. When President Thomas Jefferson came into office, he pardoned every person who was convicted on the basis of the Sedition Act.
Technological advances in the last two hundred years have further eroded our civil liberties. John Adams couldn’t spy on Americans like J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and Hoover’s FBI didn’t have the tools to spy on Americans the way the NSA could in 2013.
According to a bipartisan 1975 report on U.S. intelligence abuses, every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon used the intelligence community to target Americans. This report, created by the so-called Church Committee, found 500,000 Americans had been domestically targeted by the FBI.
FDR had asked the FBI to keep a file on people who opposed his defense policies. President Eisenhower had the FBI look into the social activities of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Attorney General Robert Kennedy famously bugged Martin Luther King, Jr.
President Lyndon Johnson bugged Senators, used the FBI to spy on the 1964 Democratic Party Convention and Barry Goldwater’s campaign staffers. After the abuses of Watergate came to light, the country passed laws like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 to limit our government’s powers.
During the Cold War, civil libertarians asked: “How many people were subjected to government surveillance?” After the Snowden revelations, we have to wonder if anybody wasn’t spied upon at some point.
In 2013, the National Security Agency (NSA) collected a billion records every day. By 2017, the NSA only collected 534 million phone calls and text messages of Americans for the entire year.
After 9/11, and certainly after Snowden’s revelations, there should have been a national conversation on mass surveillance programs in the United States. There should have been an open discussion on the limits of spying on Americans overseas or spying on foreigners on American soil.
I think that spying on non-Americans outside the U.S. is fair game as long as it relates to our security interests. For example, Snowden revealed a confidential memo that the NSA’s PRISM program spied on 35 world leaders, including tapping into German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone.
I don’t see how the Obama administration listening to Merkel’s phone conversations has any bearing on the civil liberties of the American people. That said, when James Clapper lied to Congress in 2013 about this surveillance program, he should have gone to jail for perjury. As the Director of National Intelligence from 2010 to 2017, I don’t care if James Clapper lied to our enemies. I do care when he lied under oath to Congress.
When the CIA spied on the Senate committee investigating them, CIA head John Brennan should have resigned in disgrace. Instead, he continued to abuse his power by spying on the Trump campaign in 2016. For every hour that was spent on spying on the American people, that was one less hour spent on investigating Russia, China, and other threats to this country.
Our intelligence community should not spy on the American people and they shouldn’t try to play a role in our elections. In 2016, the intervention of FBI Director James Comey arguably helped Donald Trump win the election.
In 2020, more than 50 intelligence professionals, including Trump critics James Clapper, John Brennan, and Michael Hayden, claimed that the emails on Hunter Biden’s laptop struck them as having “all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” They admitted that they didn’t know if the emails were real (they were) or if Russia was involved.
When people like Clapper or Brennan try to make the case against Snowden, it is difficult to believe them because of their own past behavior. We need national security professionals to be non-partisan and more concerned about the civil liberties of Americans.
Edward Snowden made no attempt at distinguishing between protecting the privacy of Americans versus the rest of the world. Taking a more nuanced view, I think it is fine to thank Edward Snowden for revealing mass surveillance programs on the American people while still viewing him as a traitor for exposing our foreign intelligence programs.
We probably need a modern-day Church Committee to look into abuses related to mass surveillance. We obviously cannot arrest every single intelligence professional who violated our civil liberties, but we must re-affirm that spying on Americans is a criminal act.
That said, Snowden is ultimately a traitor. Anyone who damages our foreign surveillance programs has perpetrated a most dangerous crime. We cannot and must not pardon this betrayal. We must not send a mixed message when it comes to exposing American secrets. The stakes are simply too high.
Robert Zapesochny is a researcher and writer whose work focuses on foreign affairs, national security and presidential history. His work has appeared in a range of publications, including The American Spectator, the Washington Times, and The American Conservative. For several years Robert worked closely with Peter Hannaford, a senior aide to Ronald Reagan, as the primary researcher on four books and numerous columns. Robert has also worked on multiple presidential, national and statewide campaigns, including as a field office staffer for the Bush-Cheney campaign. Due to his own Russian-Jewish heritage, Robert has a keen interest in the history of U.S.-Soviet relations. In 2017 he was the co-organizer of an effort that erected commemorative statue of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. Robert graduated with a major in Political Science from the University at Buffalo, and received his Master's in Public Administration, with a focus in healthcare, from the State University of New York College at Brockport. When he's not writing, Robert works for a medical research company in Rochester, New York. Read Robert Zapesochny's Reports — More Here.
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