Justice Breyer's Roundabout Reflection on Edward Snowden

He can't say much, but sometimes questions are as telling as statements.

Justice Stephen Breyer won't officially comment on the Edward Snowden situation, but that didn't stop him from offering some broad thoughts on the legal and philosophical issues at stake during an interview with Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week. There are two big questions looming here, Breyer argues. The first is what he calls "one of the great questions in law": Who controls the people in control? Or, more popularly, who watches the watchmen?

Answering this question is particularly difficult for younger Americans, Breyer argues, because they've grown up in a time when trust in public institutions is incredibly low. "We have systems to control the controllers, and we're seeing the people who created and implemented those systems saying, 'Trust us!' in a world where the trust in public institutions has fallen by twenty percent." But that leaves an important question unanswered: If institutions like the FISA court and programs like PRISM were created as an answer to pressing security concerns, what's the alternative? Is there a way for the government to earn the trust of the people while still protecting them?

Justice Breyer proves himself an able rhetorician in eloquently navigating around the Snowden issue in the video below, but listen carefully for his security-conscious, ultimately ambivalent stance:

The Aspen Institute

For full coverage of the Aspen Ideas Festival, see here.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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