After the Guardian first published the Snowden documents in June of 2013, supporters of civil liberties, privacy advocates, and everyday citizens around the world lauded Snowden as a whistleblower for bringing to light the US government's illegal and dangerous surveillance programs. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinsten, a staunch defender of the current surveillance state, wasted no time in lambasting Snowden for what she called "an act of treason."
By focusing on the legality of his actions rather than the unlawful programs he revealed, Feinstein and other supporters of the National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance have consistently discredited Snowden as a whistleblower. This is a powerfully deceptive rhetorical strategy because if Snowden is a criminal and not a whistleblower, it follows that the public should not trust him and should be outraged at his treasonous actions, not those of the US government.
In his speech on January 17, President Obama made it clear that he would not be discussing Edward Snowden, but still managed to criticize Snowden for taking matters into his own hands and disclosing the documents in a "sensational way." Like Feinstein, President Obama shifted attention away from the magnitude of the government's failure and obfuscated the fact that the President would not be standing before the nation discussing these secret programs and the need for reforms if not for Snowden's whistleblowing. Unfortunately, the President missed an opportunity to enact substantive reform and instead supported the preservation of phone records collection in some form.
Following the speech, Senator Feinstein and Republican Congressman Mike Rogers introduced another approach to discrediting Snowden's whistleblower status. In a January 19 interview on Meet the Press, Rogers speculated that Snowden may have been acting as a spy for Russia. Rogers told the host,
This was a thief, who we believe had some help, who stole information the vast majority had nothing to do with privacy...Well, let me just say this. I believe there's a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB agent in Moscow.
When asked if Snowden may have had help from Russia, Feinstein replied, "He may well have. We don't know at this stage. But I think to glorify this act is really to set sort of a new level of dishonor."
The irony of these statements is that Feinstein has a real credibility problem herself. Ignoring evidence that the NSA's phone record collection does not prevent terrorism, she continues to erroneously assert that gathering metadata on all calls in the United States is necessary to quickly ascertain a terrorist threat. Feinstein vehemently opposes shutting down the phone records collection and has actually proposed legislation to codify the program into law. Furthermore, although she suggests that Snowden might be a spy, the very programs she supports spy on innocent Americans everyday and violate their constitutional rights. Unsurprisingly, her support of dragnet surveillance that needlessly compromises privacy has cost her the support of her own constituents.
As chairman of the Senate Committee on Intelligence, Feinstein holds a powerful position in determining the future of NSA surveillance. A coalition of concerned organizations, including Bill of Rights Defense Committee, and over a thousand Californians have issued an open letter deploring her denial of the current crisis in surveillance policy and calling for her resignation from the committee. If you believe that government officials should defend the Constitution, submit to oversight, and refrain from undermining the work of whistleblowers, sign the letter and join the "Shame on Feinstein" campaign.