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Marco Rubio on Edward Snowden: A 'Traitor' Who Sparked 'Conspiracy Theories'

The Florida Republican's dubious commentary on America's most famous whistleblower

This week in Washington, Senator Marco Rubio accused a fellow American of treason. Edward Snowden drew the Republican's ire by informing hundreds of millions of innocent people that the NSA is spying on them.

"We must respond to the valid concerns of Americans, who are alarmed by reports regarding their civil liberties," Rubio said in a speech at AEI.  "But we must also distinguish these reasonable concerns from conspiracy theories sparked by Edward Snowden. This man is a traitor who has sought assistance and refuge from some of the world's most notorious violators of liberty and human rights."

Anyone familiar with the Snowden story will understand why Rubio's comments are misleading. Americans are concerned about their civil liberties because of the accurate information the former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor leaked. He isn't responsible for any conspiracy theories, except in the sense that a conspiracy is "an agreement to perform together an illegal, wrongful, or subversive act," and he exposed NSA and GCHQ cooperation on such acts. Finally, Snowden didn't exactly choose Vladimir Putin's Russia. His plan was to pass through en route to a different country, but while he was there, the Obama Administration yanked his passport. As a result of that brilliant strategy, they stranded a man with lots of secrets in Russia rather than, say, Ecuador. 

Here is the next thing Rubio said:

Our intelligence programs need to be carefully monitored and controlled. But we do need them, because terrorists don't use carrier pigeons to communicate. They use cell phones and the Internet, adapting the latest technologies to aid their malign intent. We need to be prepared to intercept the messages of those who mean us harm while not interfering in the affairs of ordinary citizens.

In what sense does collecting information on virtually all phone calls, hacking Google, mapping social networks, and tapping the Internet backbone not interfere with ordinary citizens? "Those of us tasked with providing oversight to these programs, starting with the president, need to be honest with the American people about the daily threats that we face," Rubio said. "We must explain why these programs, in a limited and carefully managed form, are necessary to protect the security of all Americans."

But Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, who are much, much better informed about NSA surveillance, insist that "we have yet to see any evidence that the bulk phone records collection program has provided any otherwise unobtainable intelligence," and believe much of what the NSA does is not necessary to protect our security.

One can agree or disagree with Snowden's actions. But it is mighty strange to label as a traitor someone who acted to inform his countrymen and protect their liberties.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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