Skip to main content

Why we need government surveillance

By Glenn Sulmasy, Special to CNN
June 11, 2013 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Edward Snowden leaked classified intelligence about government surveillance
  • Glenn Sulmasy: Enhanced intelligence activities are necessary in the war on terror
  • Abuse can occur if Congress is not aware of tactics like data-mining, he says
  • Sulmasy: Snowden should be extradited back to the U.S. for interviews and potential trial

Editor's note: Glenn Sulmasy is professor of law and chairman of the department of humanities at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. He is the homeland and national security law fellow at the Center for National Policy in Washington and author of "The National Security Court System -- A Natural Evolution of Justice in an Age of Terror."

(CNN) -- Edward Snowden's leaks of classified intelligence already have him being compared to Daniel Ellsworth of the Pentagon Papers and Bradley Manning of the WikiLeaks fame. Snowden felt compelled to leak valuable documents about the NSA's surveillance programs.

The 29-year-old was willing to give up his $200,000 job, girlfriend, home in Hawaii and his family. He boldly pronounced, "I'm willing to sacrifice all of that because I can't in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."

The uproar over the recent revelations about government surveillance programs has raised eyebrows and concerns across the political spectrum. Many on the left have been surprised that most of the same policies (now even the surveillance of U.S. citizens and phone companies) that President George W. Bush initiated, are being used, and expanded upon, by the Obama administration.

Glenn Sulmasy headshot
Glenn Sulmasy headshot

Many on the right say it is government overreach and that Congress should have been briefed on the broad programs. Although the cause for alarm in political or policy circles might have merit, the exercise of these authorities by the executive branch does, in fact, appear to be legal. Once again, the war on al Qaeda is pitting national security against America's longstanding commitment to the promotion of civil liberties and human rights.

Opinion: Edward Snowden is a hero

The current threat by al Qaeda and jihadists is one that requires aggressive intelligence collection and efforts. One has to look no further than the disruption of the New York City subway bombers (the one being touted by DNI Clapper) or the Boston Marathon bombers to know that the war on al Qaeda is coming home to us, to our citizens, to our students, to our streets and our subways.

This 21st century war is different and requires new ways and methods of gathering information. As technology has increased, so has our ability to gather valuable, often actionable, intelligence. However, the move toward "home-grown" terror will necessarily require, by accident or purposefully, collections of U.S. citizens' conversations with potential overseas persons of interest.

Where is NSA leaker Edward Snowden?
What could authorities do with Snowden?
Snowden's path to top secret clearance
Where is Edward Snowden?

An open society, such as the United States, ironically needs to use this technology to protect itself. This truth is naturally uncomfortable for a country with a Constitution that prevents the federal government from conducting "unreasonable searches and seizures." American historical resistance towards such activities is a bedrock of our laws, policies and police procedures.

But what might have been reasonable 10 years ago is not the same any longer. The constant armed struggle against the jihadists has adjusted our beliefs on what we think our government can, and must, do in order to protect its citizens.

However, when we hear of programs such PRISM, or the Department of Justice getting phone records of scores of citizens without any signs of suspicious activities nor indications of probable cause that they might be involved in terrorist related activities, the American demand for privacy naturally emerges to challenge such "trolling" measures or data-mining.

The executive branch, although particularly powerful in this arena, must ensure the Congress is kept abreast of activities such as these surveillance programs. The need for enhanced intelligence activities is a necessary part of the war on al Qaeda, but abuse can occur without ensuring the legislative branch has awareness of aggressive tactics such as these.

Our Founding Fathers, aware of the need to have an energetic, vibrant executive branch in foreign affairs, still anticipated checks upon the presidency by the legislature. Working together, the two branches can ensure that both legally, and by policy, this is what the citizens desire of their government -- and that leaks such as Snowden's won't have the impact and damage that his leaks are likely to cause.

As for Snowden, regardless of how any of us feel about the national security surveillance programs at issue, he must be extradited back to the U.S. for interviews and potential trial -- if for no other reason than to deter others from feeling emboldened to break the law in the same way in the future.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Glenn Sulmasy.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
ADVERTISEMENT