University News

Panelists find concord during debate on national security

Speakers address topics ranging from political divisions to Edward Snowden

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 13, 2014

Panelists James Carafano and Timothy Edgar debated national security and the challenges of being an informed citizen during Wednesday’s event.

“I’m not here to debate,” said James Carafano, vice president of foreign defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, at a debate on national security in the internet age Wednesday night. “Debates are like sporting events,” and if audience members wanted to watch opposing sides score points, they could “go watch the Olympics,” he said.

His metaphor set the tone for a dialogue with Timothy Edgar, a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, who served as the national security and immigration counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and as the first director of privacy and civil liberties for the Obama administration .

The panelists covered political divisions on national security, Edward Snowden, the former national security contractor accused of leaking a trove of classified government information, and the challenges of becoming an informed citizen.  Though the debate, sponsored by the Alexander Hamilton Society,  featured a lecturer from a liberal university and a political scholar from a conservative think-tank, the two agreed on most of the subject matter.


Not a left-and-right issue

Few would have expected that James Carafano would “agree with 95 percent” of what Edgar said in his opening statement.

But national security in a digital age is not a traditional left-right political debate, both speakers said, adding that they did not come to debate but rather to have a dialogue about why national security is important, and what can be done to ensure both privacy and safety.

Criticisms of the National Security Agency, which has become the symbol of the U.S. intelligence agencies in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, have come from both sides of the aisle, said Justin Braga ’16, president of the Brown chapter of the AHS and host of the event.

“Conservatives are all over the map on this issue,” Carafano said, adding that Democrats are in a similar situation.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-K.Y., filed a class-action lawsuit against President Obama yesterday for the NSA’s collecting of  Americans’ phone records without suspicion or judges’ warrants, but Democrats will remain relatively quiet about the issue, Carafano said, because they would not want to “cause trouble” for Obama.


Snowden scandal  

In the question-and answer-session following the debate, a student asked the speakers if Snowden is a hero or a traitor.

Though Snowden is not a hero or a traitor, Edgar said, he is “extremely reckless” for releasing highly classified documents to the media.

Carafano agreed that Snowden’s actions were “completely irresponsible,” adding that he was “completely unqualified to evaluate the quality and efficacy of the information” he disclosed. Snowden could not possibly have known whether his action would be detrimental or beneficial to the public, he said.

Carafano cited Snowden’s release of classified trade records between Australia and Indonesia, which hurt the two countries’ relationship, as an example of a negative consequence of Snowden’s actions that he probably could not have anticipated.

The disclosures have had the positive effect of inciting a conversation about privacy and security, Edgar said, but there is “no need to lionize” Snowden for doing so.

Snowden is not even a “whistleblower,” Carafano said, adding that a whistleblower would need to understand that a governmental agency was engaging in illicit activities.

Edgar said current laws protecting whistleblowers would probably be effective for someone like himself who works at a high level in the government and understands that a practice is illegal. But the laws do little to protect “people at a very low level … who see a piece of what’s going on and are very troubled by what they’ve seen and want to blow the whistle.”


Who can you trust?

“The law is pretty clear on what the government can do,” Carafano said. “It’s not a legal question. It’s really a question for the American people,” Carafano added. “What do you want?”

The obstacle in answering these questions is the difficulty involved in educating oneself about the issue, which is a “nearly insurmountable challenge,” Carafano said.

Edgar said Americans must have a lot of trust in whomever they go to for education on the subject, noting that the public should doubt the extent of the knowledge held by journalists, activists and politicians.

“The media’s horrific on this issue,” Carafano said, a sentiment that Edgar echoed.

A film put together by activists about the lack of privacy in contemporary American society, entitled “Terms and Conditions May Apply,” was screened on campus Tuesday.

Edgar, who attended the screening, said the film got several facts wrong, and activists are generally poorly educated about the topics they seek to teach others.

Edgar and Carafano concluded the debate by lamenting the ineffectiveness of politicians, who Carafano grouped into four categories: “people who don’t know, know but can’t or don’t want to talk about it, know but want to exploit the issue for their advantage anyway and … people who are trying to do sensible things.”

But even politicians who do want to make change or educate the public face significant challenges, Edgar said.

“It’s a very frustrating job to be on the inside and want to explain these things and be prevented from doing so,” he said.