Considering patriotism: Is Snowden a hero or pariah?

It's useful to put the NSA leaker's actions in historical context

July 03, 2013|Susan Reimer

As we celebrate the birth by revolution of this country, let's take a moment to put some historical context to the actions of Edward Snowden and to consider whether he is a traitor or a patriot.

Back in the 1780s, when everyone in America was by definition a traitor, a spy or an insurgent as far as England was concerned, the Founding Fathers included language in the Constitution that defined treason — the only crime so defined in the document — so that citizens could not be executed for merely speaking out against the country's leadership.

Treason was defined as levying war against the United States or "adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort."

When farmers refused to pay a new tax on whiskey that had been imposed by the federal government — wasn't that kind of thing what had triggered the Revolutionary War, after all? — President George Washington suppressed the rebellion with troops, and two of its leaders were convicted of treason and sentenced to hang.

They were later pardoned by Mr. Washington as the new country wrestled with what constituted legitimate protest.

John Brown was convicted and hanged for treason (by the state of Virginia, which like most states had treason language in its state constitution) for overrunning a munitions supply in Harper Ferry. His goal had been to arm slaves for rebellion.

And four members of the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln were convicted of treason and hanged. As was William Bruce Mumford, whose only crime was tearing down a United States flag during the Civil War.

But Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, indicted for treason for their part in the Civil War, were granted a blanket amnesty by President Andrew Johnson for the sake of national healing.

The Constitution had left the door open for Congress to define treason further, and it did so during World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson pushed a reluctant Congress to pass the Espionage Act of 1917. It forbid obtaining or delivering information relating to national defense to a person who was not "entitled to have it," and it included the death penalty.

To its credit, Congress rejected a provision for prior restraint of the press, despite Wilson's claim that "authority to exercise censorship over the press ... is absolutely necessary to the public safety."

It was greeted with less than enthusiasm by the Department of Justice, which concluded that it would just generate difficult prosecutions. But it was thought that the law might help quell the public demand for government action against those who spoke against America's involvement in the war in Europe.

This was the law that was used to prosecute and execute the Rosenbergs, as well as to jail a host of Cold War spies.

Though the law says nothing about the release of information to the press, it was used against Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame. The Supreme Court ruled that the government had not made a sufficient case for prior restraint, but a majority agreed that the government could still prosecute the New York Times and The Washington Post for publishing the documents.

And it is the law that is being used against Mr. Snowden, who has revealed the extraordinary breadth of U.S. surveillance of its citizens and its allies and who is now being denied political asylum by a growing list of countries.

His untethered status put me in mind of Edward Everett Hale's short story, "The Man Without a Country," published in The Atlantic in 1863.

It is about a young Army lieutenant who renounces his country during his trial for treason and is sentenced to spend the rest of his life aboard Navy ships at sea, without a glimpse of his country or a scrap of news about her. Over the years, he regrets his outburst and grieves for the loss of his country more than for friends or family.

At his death, it is found that he has created a shrine to the United States in his room, including a flag, a portrait of Washington and an outdated map.

He asks that his epitaph read: PHILIP NOLAN, "'Lieutenant in the army of the United States. He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands."

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer Twitter.com

 

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