How should we define Edward Snowden, the 29-year old whistle-blower, who revealed the National Security Agency's massive domestic surveillance program? Is he a hero, patriot, or traitor?

Such questions, though predictable, reflect the type of query that seeks to place a premature answer ahead of the facts. How Snowden is defined in the public discourse is not nearly as important as answering one basic question: Is he right?

Is that not the question that matters? Shouldn't we know if what Snowden says is accurate, and do those allegations violate the Constitution's implied right to privacy?

But in the collective haste to define Snowden, it is easy to forget how we arrived at this moment. How quickly we overlook the genesis of Snowden's allegations came at a time when America placed its democratic values on autopilot.

Immediately following 9/11, there was a sense, whether real or imagined, that America faced an issue that rendered the Constitution to a be secondary consideration. Fear was the primary concern.

The power of the presidency, which had been weakened in the post Watergate years, would once again become the unquestioned big dog on the block, assisted by Congress.

The legislative branch willfully and systematically neutered itself. In the four years after 9/11, they were mere cheerleaders, failing to ask difficult questions, offering blank checks to the executive branch, while decrying that anyone who disagreed was un-American.


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In 2008, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama momentarily suspended their presidential campaigns to return to Washington to vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act. Their failure to do so would have most likely meant political suicide.

Wasn't this what we wanted -- what we thought we needed to feel safe? Perhaps not everyone, but such dissent was drowned out by the cacophony of fear.

The justifiable concerns then and now must also be tempered by the reality that terrorism looks different inside the Oval Office. Any potential overreach should come as no surprise. The reactionary climate was already in place when President Barack Obama took the oath of office.

After George Washington, one would be hard pressed to provide an example of a commander in chief who willingly gave back power.

The country remains immersed in a tragic phenomenon whereby partisanship is valued more than the Constitution.

House Democratic Assistant Leader James Clyburn recently charged that NSA leaks are part of a broader effort to damage President Obama politically.

"I haven't gotten to where I am in politics without relying on my gut. And my gut tells me this is an effort to embarrass the president," Clyburn said.

Would this be Clyburn's position if the allegations were made against former President George W. Bush? Shouldn't his initial concern be for the impact this potentially has on the nation?

Several surrogates of the president have raised questions as to how Snowden could rise from a GED graduate to a high-level security clearance at the NSA.

It is always a red flag when an accuser's integrity is called into question. Maybe Snowden's unlikely ascension warrants further investigation, or maybe it is a smoke screen to keep us talking about the irrelevant, hunkered down in our partisan silos, while the truth remains immune from scrutiny.

I didn't support the policies that gave Bush wide reaching authority and I don't endorse them now. But our disgust of any potential overreach cannot be dependent upon who occupies the White House.

The fear generated by 9/11 is no reason, assuming it ever was, to continue policies that adversely infringe on the human right that prohibits government from interfering with life and liberty as well as freedom of thought and expression.

But the only way to know is by answering the question: Is Edward Snowden right? And if so, what then?

Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or byron@byronspeaks.com.