By Hannah Bleau | firstname.lastname@example.org
WASHINGTON D.C.- Harnessing widespread anger towards diminishing civil liberties, CPAC engaged hundreds of attendees in a privacy panel on day two of the annual conference. The panel featured three policy experts to reflect the current issues of privacy in modern day America.
“Who thinks they’re safer here today because of the data the National Security Agency has collected?” asked one panelist to a full crowd.
Out of an estimated 2,000 people, as little as 50 raised their hands.
The session began with video footage of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who released documents on the NSA’s extensive data mining on the communications of average American citizens and, after fleeing to Hong Kong, found asylum in Russia.
The video showed Snowden expressing his concerns over the NSA scandal. Snowden said the NSA claims to data mine for the good of the nation and the most efficient way to do it is by collecting the information of everyone, not just a select few.
Despite his reasoning, the video stirred mixed emotions in the audience. Moderator John Solomon, editor of the Washington Times, opened the debate by asking about Snowden: Is he a traitor or patriot?
Bruce Fein, a prominent lawyer and advocate of civil liberties, opened the argument. The NSA, he argued, attempts to justify the actions of spying on American citizens under the guise of the ultimate social good.
“There is no connection between all of you in the audience and international terrorism. Now surveillance is authorized not because they suspect wrongdoing, but because there isn’t any suspected wrongdoing. I think that shows how far we have come from the original meaning of the Fourth Amendment,” Fein said.
Fein said the NSA has been collecting data from American citizens since May 2006. As far as Fein is concerned, Snowden did not commit a terrible crime. As a government agency, the NSA should be held to the higher standard. Anger should be directed toward the government itself rather than Snowden as an individual.
“We don’t have to give a reason to be left alone. It’s our right because we’re human beings. It is the government that needs to give a reason to why,” Fein said.
Another panel member, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore Jr., had an opposite take on the situation, which also seemed to resonate with the audience.
“Edward Snowden is a traitor and a coward. The fact is that Edward Snowden betrayed his trust,” Gilmore said, holding up a cover of the New York Post, which pictured Snowden next to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Gilmore even added that some claim Snowden obtained his information through “trickery”.
Gilmore said anger should be directed at Snowden. To Gilmore, Snowden compromised his allegiance to the U.S. when he fled to Hong Kong to release the documents.
“And then at a later time he goes off to Russian in order to pay common cause with a Stalinist thug who today is doing something that is unacceptable in the Ukraine,” Gilmore said.
Gilmore said the Constitution clearly lays out the criteria for treason. That includes giving aid and comfort to our enemies, which is precisely what Snowden is doing.
The audience began to drift when Gilmore came in defense of the government’s breech on privacy. He attempted to win the audience back by displaying his staunch respect for the Fourth Amendment, noting that he vetoed red light bills when he was governor. Murmurs rushed through the audience and some vocalized their disgust.
Student representative for the panel Charlie Kirk, Executive Director of Turning Point USA, acted as the voice for the younger generation.
“I don’t think young people look at him as a patriot or traitor, but rather for what he revealed. Every single tweet, snapchat, text message and call is being stored, collected, and analyzed. We’re in a culture where what you believe is being used against you,” Kirk said.
Kirk thinks Americans should be most concerned about the government’s extensive data mining, which has led to scandals like the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups and political action committees.
For many Americans, it is not necessarily what Snowden did, but what he revealed. The government is capable of not only collecting private information, but storing it and using it against private individuals. Kirk said it’s this revelation that needs to be addressed.
“There is a fine line between what you tweet, post and make public and what is behind a closed veil. There is a line that the government has crossed especially with the younger generation,” Kirk said.
Although the three panelists had different takes on the situation, they all related to a socially engaged audience in some form.
Fein captured the crowd’s sentiments when he quoted Thomas Jefferson.
“When the government fears the people, you have liberty. When the people fear the government, you have tyranny,” Fein said.