Now that two special prosecutors have been named for the handling of classified documents, many people are wondering why documents are classified at all. Conspiracy theorists for decades have been warning of the secrets that the classification system poses. While advocates of the system warn that classification is important to keep us safe from hostile foreign actors. Who is right, and what information does the public have the right to know about?
Document classification goes to the heart of American democracy. The United States has a republican form of government, meaning people elect representatives to draft laws for them. This has led to a document classification system whereby elected officials and others who are appointed by them have the right to view secret documents that the public does not have the right to know about.
Simply viewing these documents can lead to prosecution, not to mention releasing them, which can be a violation of the Espionage Act. The espionage act was created to counter German spying and lays the foundation for the classification of documents today. Someone violates the Espionage Act when they release documents to the public that a reasonable person would believe jeopardizes national security, or if they intentionally work to harm the United States.
Many people have questioned whether the government is hiding secrets that have huge implications for the structure of our society. These include conspiracies that the government has discovered an alien existence and is keeping it from us to avoid panicking the population. Snowden's revelations have led to the justification of decades of paranoia that the government is spying on the population, something that only happens in corrupt dictatorships and not in healthy democracies.
It's hard to believe, but it has been almost 10 years since Edward Snowden first came to be known as a whistleblower, someone who shed light on covert government programs and illegal spying. Has anything changed, and are we better off because of the leaks?
I would say in some ways we are worse off, and in some ways, we have made progress. Snowden himself believes that his leaks have encouraged people to use encryption apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, which help preserve privacy. On the other hand, these apps have encouraged acts of violence and abuse. In general, I would say we are worse off because the lack of trust in government has eroded and these apps have been used to encourage further mistrust of government, such that our national security has been gravely threatened.
But what went wrong in the process, and can we think of Snowden as helping the world? Or is it true that he is really acting against the interests of the United States?
When Snowden first gained notoriety, it was not his own doing. It was the NSA that found out his identity fairly quickly. For better or worse, Snowden is now the public face of privacy and whistleblowing. Snowden was pictured wrapped in an American flag on the cover of Wired magazine. He has recently been granted Russian citizenship at a politically fraught time. The reason why Snowden did this was that the State Department revoked his passport so he could not travel anywhere else.
Russia was the only country that would allow him to enter. Allegedly, what Snowden did was so bad (turning over thousands of documents) that the government had the right to immediately revoke his passport. But what Snowden did was turn over documents to journalists, so he argues that what he did was protected speech to report government wrongdoing. It has been established by the Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision that the government can revoke the passports of those deemed to jeopardize national security.
The government is so secretive that it will not reveal exactly how Snowden jeopardized security, but the claim is that the number of documents he handed over could not possibly be in the public interest. The claim is that these documents had a national security interest and were used to stop terrorists. There has to be a certain truth to that. The more you know how the government operates, the better you will be able to evade them.
On the other hand, privacy needs to be protected to prevent government abuse. Many people that are not a threat to national security are swept up in drag nets that have been deemed illegal, such as low-level users of marijuana and other drug addicts. People should be protected from politically motivated investigations. Recreational Drug use is a political issue and does not jeopardize national security. Mistrust in government can also be a national security issue. If people believe the government is abusing them, that will push people to not trust the government and foster extremism.
We must have a good-faith discussion between national security and privacy. That is what Snowden said he wanted, but there has not been as much of it as I would like. In many ways, the dragnet has gotten worse, especially in regards to hackers or companies that collect data and then sell it to the government or create security back doors simply for their greed.
For Snowden to be charged, he needs to have "intended to jeopardize national security" or "have a reasonable belief to assume his actions were dangerous to the United States." But to have "intent for jeopardizing national security," the government would have to show something or someone was harmed. Congress in 2016 claimed that Snowden created tremendous harm to national security. But how exactly he did this remains questionable. The report claims that troops overseas were harmed by the secrets he revealed.
Now that Biden and Trump are being investigated, the question is being asked again about the importance of document classification. Because Biden and Trump were both in government, they probably both assume that they have a higher right to privacy than the rest of us. If classification doesn't matter, then neither Biden nor Trump did anything wrong. But if classification does matter, then they are implicated, and possibly both criminals. Simply cooperating does not matter.
But the amount of documents that Trump helped at Mar-A-Lago is significantly less than the number that Snowden released. Trump claims to have only 100 documents, whereas Snowden released thousands to the press. And Biden seemed the most cooperative out of all the three, insisting that he had no right to have the documents.
Trump had his documents where anyone could see them and did not vet them with journalists in an ethical way to make sure national security was not jeopardized. It has been reported that many spies visit Mar-A-Lago because it is like a revolving door or a security zone where nuclear secrets have been jeopardized. There was no public interest in these secrets being at risk.
I believe that it is important for the government to work with the public and not try to keep things secret that are in the public interest. With the new hearings on UFOs, we are starting to see that some conspiracy theories are not as crazy as once believed.
There are secret government programs and agendas that fuel conspiracies, but oftentimes the government knows just as little as everyone else does. What is most unsettling about the UFO hearings is that it seems no one knows what these things are. That, to me, is more unsettling than if little green men were running around.
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