President Obama may not view Edward Snowden as a patriot, but there is a group in Buffalo that does and its members are speaking out.
Formed under the moniker of Buffalonians Against the Surveillance State, or BASS, it is a coalition of lawyers, labor leaders and progressive activists who view Snowden as a hero, not a traitor.
The group, in a mission statement of sorts, says Snowden and Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier who disclosed hundreds of thousands of secret documents, “belong to a long line of Americans, who, like Paul Revere, have alerted the American people of approaching tyranny and despotism.”
“We’ve entered a real Orwellian state and it’s scary,” said Richard D. Furlong, a Buffalo attorney. “We just want to speak out and have our say. In fact, I think it’s incumbent on us, as Americans and especially lawyers, to speak out.”
The group began meeting several weeks ago in hopes of raising public awareness about the National Security Agency’s massive collection of telephone, email and Internet communications involving hundreds of millions of Americans.
BASS’ first step is a petition supporting Snowden and Manning that has being circulated in the community. The group also has invited Snowden’s father, Lon, who has become one of his son’s biggest defenders, to visit Buffalo.
Organizers say the coalition is made up largely of lawyers angry over the government’s widespread surveillance of average Americans and what they view as clear-cut violations of “our most fundamental and precious Constitutional rights.”
“There’s nothing wrong with opposing a powerful government when that government is doing something wrong,” said Richard Lipsitz Sr., who recently retired as one of Buffalo’s most prominent labor lawyers. “The American government is now in a position of obtaining information about Americans that has no bounds. And that’s wrong.”
In its statement to the public, BASS argues that the government’s widespread surveillance program is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, the right to privacy, and the First Amendment, the right to free speech.
“The Fourth and First Amendments are reflections of who we are as a people,” said Joseph L. Guza, a Buffalo lawyer. “And the law is a reflection of who we are as Americans.”
Even more important, perhaps, organizers think the American people are starting to view the government’s actions as “quintessentially unAmerican” and point to public opinion polls showing increasing support for Snowden.
A Quinnipiac poll in July found American voters, 55 percent to 34 percent, now view Snowden as a whistleblower.
That same poll also found a dramatic shift in how the public sees the NSA program.
The survey found voters, 45 percent to 40 percent, view the government’s surveillance effort as an infringement on their civil liberties, a change from 2010 when a similar survey by Quinnipiac found 63 percent believed the government’s actions didn’t go far enough to protect the country.
BASS’ campaign coincides with Obama’s announcement of reforms intended to make the NSA programs more transparent, and his continued insistence that Snowden stand trial on espionage charges.
“I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot,” Obama said at a White House news conference last week. And “I called for a thorough review of our surveillance operations before Mr. Snowden made these leaks.”
Furlong, who grew up in New York City and lost several close friends in the World Trade Center attacks, doesn’t dispute the government’s role in going after terrorists.
What upsets him is a surveillance effort that, he believes, has turned each and every American into a criminal suspect.
“Regardless of one’s take on Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, we are now having a very real and robust discussion about these issues," he said. “And we never would have had these discussions without Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning."
BASS, which is circulating its statement in the community in an effort to gain support, ends its petition with a quote from Benjamin Franklin that it argues is just as relevant now as it was 250 years ago:
“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”