Opinion: The Importance of Edward Snowden

On July 4, the citizens of the United States will celebrate the publication, 237 years ago, of the Declaration of Independence, which marked the beginning of the American Revolution and the break with England. It contains these words, which are as important to those of us in Hong Kong as they are those in Pocatello, Idaho:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." At the time, "all men" included only a handful of wealthy property owners, of course, no women and no slaves or Native Americans. In subsequent constitutional amendments and court decisions, the universality of rights, thankfully, has largely been extended to everyone in the United States.

The United Nations extended the concept beyond US borders in its declaration of human rights, which is as it should be. Now it is the rights not only of Americans but of the 7 billion people of the world that are at issue in the recent revelations by Edward Snowden.

In 1789, having won their war of independence from England, the 13 colonies that made up the fledgling nation wrote a Constitution and a short time later added 10 amendments known universally as the Bill of Rights. Building on and greatly expanding English law, the amendments are arguably the most important written protections for human liberty ever put together.

The first amendment says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Ranking not far behind it is the fourth, which reads: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

It is the fourth amendment that is under enormous pressure today and this is where Snowden comes in. Unfortunately the current narrative has shifted away from what Snowden revealed to what Snowden allegedly is. He has been vilified as a megalomaniac, a traitor and a spy; he is threatened with 30 years in prison if he ever returns to the United States after having revealed the existence of a vast electronic eavesdropping program not only on US citizens but on millions of people worldwide, including those of us who live in Hong Kong, where, according to Snowden, the US government has been particularly enthusiastic about invading other people's privacy.

He has been ridiculed for being a computer geek and for consuming that most American of meals, pizza and Pepsi-Cola. This has been convenient for President Barack Obama, famously a Constitutional scholar who made his living as a college professor before he became a politician. By demonizing or ridiculing Snowden, the President of the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry and most of the herd-mentality US media have been able to explain away what Snowden exposed.

He revealed massive, consistent, continuing violations of the US Constitution that began with the Patriot Act and the onset of the Bush administration. Nobody, anywhere, has been immune from unreasonable searches and seizures of "their persons, houses, papers, and effects" in the form of computer data and telephone records by American spies. Obama may wish to disagree but the massive attempts to discredit Snowden's revelations only show how close to the bone his truth cuts.

Warrantless wiretaps have been issued, as the President and his lackeys have pointed out, but by a nameless, faceless claque of judges, without Congressional oversight. Obama signed a reauthorization of this spying that included no additional oversight. So much for the ideals of America's supposedly liberal president.

Snowden revealed this information to the American people and the world. It is information that is already known to many. The Iranians know who invented STUXNET, which made their uranium enrichment centrifuges spin like Tibetan whirligigs. The Chinese have known for years who is flitting among their defense contracts. He did not reveal intelligence, he revealed the embarrassing fact that laws are being broken by the government and rights ignored, and he demolished a phony holier than thou sense of outrage that other countries are doing evil unto an innocent and guileless American government.

It turns out that some 62 percent of the American people think that what the government is doing is just fine, and that they are being protected from terrorists intent on wreaking havoc. But look at what this kind of chicanery has produced so far. The government insists it has produced valuable intelligence. But the government in the past has been assiduous in triumphal announcements when "terrorists" are thwarted. It caught a couple of disgruntled Pakistani ice cream sellers in Lodi, California, who were egged on by FBI informants into making some vague plans to engage in some unformed scheme. There are malcontents lodged in jails in several places in the United States for doing nothing more than making a few beer-filled threats that were turned into terror stories with the help of paid informants aided and abetted by electronic surveillance laws.

Some of the incidents that resulted in real threats were never detected. The Army psychiatrist who shot 16 of his comrades in Fort Hood, Texas was never detected. The man who attempted to bomb New Year celebrations in New York's Times Square was undetected. The authorities appear to have ignored traditional Russian gumshoe warnings about the Boston Marathon bombers ? until this vast, amorphous, usually unmanageable cloud of data managed to allow the FBI to harass everybody who had ever made or had a phone call with the Tsarnaev brothers. So far, we have had no arrests, but one questionable shooting in custody.

y In the meantime, the woods are full of sullen high school dropouts protected by the Second Amendment, the one that allows Americans to carry arms and is so sacrosanct that no politician dares touch it. Spying on your own people is fine but we Americans dare not violate the Constitution by restricting the use of semi-automatic weapons that can take out an entire grade school class in seconds.

"A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed," the Second Amendment says.

According to the Roberts Supreme Court's interpretation, that "well-regulated militia" appears to include Sandy Hook's Adam Lanza, who killed 20 schoolchildren and six staff; James Holmes, who shot dead 12 people and wounded 58 in a theater in Aurora, Colorado; Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who killed 12 students and one teacher, wounding 21 more in the Columbine murders in Littleton Colorado, and thousands of other murders. It is a staggering death toll -- 32,163 in 2010, making a mockery of the numbers from terror attack attempts. Some well-regulated militia!

The Bill of Rights came about because the founding fathers catalogued "a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States." They wished to see that this would not happen again and thus enshrined some of the most basic freedoms known to the world at that time.

On the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the American people need to understand that the Declaration has been spun on its principles. The citizenry are not safe in their homes from surreptitious prying, nor are they safe on the streets where the right to keep and bear arms puts them in random jeopardy. Snowden acted in the best traditions of the American spirit.