John Solomon, the editor of the Washington Times, opened the privacy panel at CPAC with a clip of Edward Snowden, and the question, “Is he a traitor?”
Bruce Fein, a lawyer hired by Snowden’s family, replied, “Snowden is more of a patriot in Thomas Paine’s sense: someone who saves his country from his government.” Solomon stuck to the theme by asking Fein, “If he were a traitor, how would you defend him?” Fein pushed back on the appropriateness of these questions, saying it made no sense to let a discussion of laws Snowden broke eclipse the discussion of “the lawlessness of the government that he exposed.”
Fein added, that, if the government was so keen on the rule of law, it had no need of extradition to prosecute the National Director of Intelligence, James Clapper, for perjury before Congress. Arguably, he said, Clapper’s offense and the overreach he covered up was more serious since, “When the government becomes a lawbreaker, it invites every man and woman to become a law unto themselves.”
The fear of governmental lawlessness was a central concern for Charlie Kirk, the executive director of TurningPoint USA. After allegations that the IRS selectively audited conservative groups, he said, it was impossible to hear the president promise that these programs target “enemies foreign and domestic” and be confident that the kinds of groups and people in attendance at CPAC weren’t in danger of increased scrutiny as retribution.
Former Governor of Virginia Jim Gilmore, who served as a U.S. Army Counterintelligence Agent, said that Snowden’s disclosures put the country at unacceptable risk. When spy programs go too far, he said, they should be opposed through official channels, not subverted through broad, illegal disclosures. Gilmore had opposed the Total Information Awareness program, he pointed out, and he didn’t put anyone’s lives in danger to do it.
Fein replied that the secrecy of these NSA programs made them hard to oppose using conventional means. He pointed out that Rand Paul’s class action lawsuit against the NSA could never have been filed, but for Snowden’s leaks. Without access the specific details Snowden revealed, Paul’s lawsuit would have been thrown out as speculative.
As the audience weighed the tradeoff between liberty and security, Gilmore drew applause when he argued that intelligence operations are needed to defend national security. But when the moderator asked the attendees to raise their hands if they felt safer as the result of NSA surveillance, barely twenty or so hands were visible in a room packed more than two hundred strong. The lively crowd booed Gilmore when he called Snowden “a coward as well as a traitor,” and one attendee yelled “You lie!” when Gilmore said, “I understand pretty well what the Fourth Amendment is about.”
Fein spoke up against appeals to 9/11 and said that terrorist attack shouldn’t necessarily be answered by giving the government new powers. According to Fein, “People are saying the laws prior to 9/11 didn’t work, but that’s like saying that our laws against murder don’t work, since there are still murders.” Ultimately, he concluded, an increased risk of attacks is the price America pays for liberty.