Is Edward Snowden the Only American Who Remembers the Words of the 4th Amendment?

Edward SnowdenThis week an unusual bipartisan effort from 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats almost succeeded in an attempt to cut off funding for the NSA’s collection of phone data by 205 “yes” to 217 “no” votes.

But the movement to curb the NSA’s secret power over American citizens has now spread from the fringes, the wing nuts, of the Republican and Democratic parties to considerable mainstream support which the New York Times now calls “unstoppable.”

Even backers of the NSA’s sweeping surveillance policies now admit that changes and more transparency are likely, as the politics of the issue are changing rapidly.

Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said there are serious meetings to find accommodations to widespread public misgivings about secret courts and secret orders regarding the surveillance of ordinary U.S. citizens.

Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin and one of the primary authors of the Patriot Act after 9/11, said this week on the House floor that never did he intend to allow the wholesale vacuuming up of domestic phone records, nor did his original legislation envision data dragnets beyond specific targets.

Snowden’s father, Lon, wrote to him in a prescient letter, “(w)hat you have done and are doing has awakened congressional oversight of the intelligence community from deep slumber” and “forced onto the national agenda the question of Whether the American people prefer the right to be left alone from government snooping absent probable cause. … You are a modern day Paul Revere: summoning the American people to confront the growing danger of tyranny and one branch government.”

“The time has come to stop it, and the way we stop it is to approve this amendment,” Sensenbrenner added to his impromptu House remarks.

From the beginning, the Obama administration and its allies strongly condemned Snowden’s release of confidential information and called him a traitor, but they are now, begrudgingly, admitting that Snowden may have performed an important public service by starting a valuable debate about privacy — and the steps needed defend us from terrorism.

Snowden quickly became an embarrassment to the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party, which has so touted its anti-terrorism credentials. But now Democrats need to come right out and denounce this unwarranted spying on Americans and stop the NSA from treating every American as a national security threat.

The simple fact is: neither conservative nor liberal politicians can easily explain why they believe their government should be secretly monitoring every American in this country.

After all, the 4th Amendment to the Constitution is quite clear about the freedoms Americans have.

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

In other words, a search must be justified by suspicion and “probable cause”, but how many of the billions of bits of data and phone calls logged are meeting this bar — justified by suspicion?

This is the gift and sacrifice that Edward Snowden has made for his country. Is Edward Snowden the only loyal American to remember the words of the 4th Amendment to our Constitution? Perhaps history will remember him as one of the most loyal Americans of us all.

How many of us are brave enough to do what he did?

How many of us would choose to give up family — a home in paradise, a high-paying job — to help our country. How many of us would sacrifice our own future, for the future of America’s democratic ideals and freedoms?

Certainly not me. I am not that brave.

In fact, for the last couple of weeks, I have been waffling about whether I am even brave enough to write this post praising Edward Snowden.

The entire political establishment and media mob started by vilifying Edward Snowden. Liberals and conservatives united for the first time, as never before this session, accusing him of treason.

But episodic terrorism is not really a threat to U.S. values and prosperity. However, the erosion of our historic values and freedoms will surely destroy what has made America exceptional for the last 237 years.

And insidious technology has made this so much easier. It threatens to turn us into a 1984 totalitarian state in a way, and with power that the Stasi — the Secret Police of East Germany that sought to know everything about its citizens — could only dream about.

There are always good reasons for easy compromises to our 4th Amendment rights.

Cellphone tracking… web browsing records… medical records… social media…

Are these are the kinds of things that really threaten our society? We must keep the big picture in mind.

Once these ever-so-easy compromises are established, they will not go away quickly, and before long, we will look around and our cherished freedoms will all be gone.

The question is: Is our country better off as a result of these revelations?

“We are tired of living in a nation governed by fear instead of the principles of freedom and liberty that made this nation great,” the ACLU stated about Snowden.

But history will judge Snowden, and I predict it will look kindly on him.

Perhaps even one day a president will say of Edward Snowden: “A grateful nation thanks you for your service and sacrifice. All loyal Americans are in your debt.”

Parts of this post were published in the Huffington Post earlier this week.


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About Blake Fleetwood

Blake Fleetwood Blake Fleetwood was formerly on the staff of The New York Times and has written for The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, The New York Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Village Voice, Atlantic and the Washington Monthly on a number of issues. He was born in Santiago, Chile and moved to New York City at the age of three. He graduated from Bard College and did graduate work in political science and comparative politics at Columbia University. He has also taught politics at New York University. He can be reached at
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