- - Friday, March 14, 2014

I recently participated in a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference on the state of privacy in post-Sept. 11 America. Much of the panel centered on former government contractor Edward Snowden.

I believed then as I do now that Mr. Snowden is not only a traitor for giving comfort to our nation’s enemies, but a coward.

Instead of facing the consequences of his actions, he chose to hide behind Russian President Vladimir Putin, who at this very moment has occupied the Crimea in blatant violation of international law.

Unfortunately, my comments on Mr. Snowden led some to accuse me of defending the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices, when my position is quite the opposite.

Since I chaired the Congressional Advisory Panel on Homeland Security, I have always thought that protecting the civil liberties of Americans must be our paramount concern.

I firmly believe the NSA has caused irreparable damage to the trust in our government institutions by impeding our civil liberties and, most likely, lying to Congress.

Too many issues in modern American politics have been divided into false choices. In this case, some seem to think that if you’re outraged by NSA surveillance, you have to think Edward Snowden is a hero, and if you think Mr. Snowden is a traitor, then you must be defending the NSA.

Does anyone honestly believe that if they’re upset about the NSA revelations, they can’t also be outraged that an American leaker has fled the country and is in the public protection of the same Russian dictator who is flouting international law by invading the Ukraine? These false choices are poisoning our politics and depriving our nation of serious, adult leadership.

Mr. Snowden sought and received asylum from one of our oldest adversaries in order to avoid the charges against him, despite assurances from the U.S. attorney general that he would receive all of his constitutional protections at trial in civilian court, and would not face a possible death sentence.

While we have a long, proud history of civil disobedience in America, I don’t think Martin Luther King or our Founding Fathers would ever have offered themselves up as propaganda tools to a Stalinist thug while jeopardizing the security of our country.

None of my feelings about Mr. Snowden does anything to diminish my outrage at what we know about the NSA’s surveillance program, though, or my fear of what we don’t know.

Just last week, we learned that the CIA may have spied on the U.S. Senate Committee investigating the CIA’s interrogation program. These revelations paint a picture of an intelligence community run amok.

However, Americans shouldn’t be taken in by the false choice between liberty and security. I don’t think that the nation that broke the sound barrier and put a man on the moon can’t protect its citizens and ensure their essential freedoms at the same time. Politicians and others who claim that we must choose between these two essential tasks sell America short.

Congress needs to guarantee the clandestine services have the necessary tools to combat threats to our national security while subsequently ensuring their constituents that our rights are not violated by mass data collection.

The scope of data collected by our clandestine services needs to be limited to identifying threats, exposing plots and bringing those who wish us harm to justice.

Congress has failed to provide the necessary oversight of these programs needed to secure our liberties. Additionally, Congress has failed to pass the legislation needed to severely punish those who would use this information for any purpose other than to protect America. Oversight and accountability are the answer — not surrender or isolationism.

Congress and the administration need to level with the American people and acknowledge that government record-keeping on law-abiding citizens may have encroached upon our Fourth Amendment rights, and they must reform, and exercise strict oversight over, these surveillance programs.

Painting political issues as black-and-white choices between mutually exclusive options is great for raising money and demonizing your opponents, but adult leadership demands the ability to strike balances and understand the need to achieve two goals at the same time.

We can be outraged that the NSA has been gathering data on innocent Americans while we’re simultaneously outraged by Mr. Snowden’s treacherous acts. The good news is America doesn’t have to choose between liberty and safety. America has what it takes to be both safe and secure.

Jim Gilmore is the president and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation. He served as governor of Virginia from 1998 to 2002 and as Republican National Committee chairman from 2001 to 2002.

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