Privacy Paradox

A Wonk's Dilemma

By Mieke Eoyang
Tuesday, September 5, 2017, 12:37 PM

This piece is part of a series on Tim Edgar's new book, "Beyond Snowden."

Like me, Tim Edgar is a wonk. He is one of the many thousands of people in Washington who grapples with the legal and policy implications of various government programs. He, like many, has moved between government, advocacy, and academia, working within the same field from different vantage points. His book, "Beyond Snowden" is part personal memoir, part policy debate.  It is a tour through the various issues that percolated through the intelligence community around electronic surveillance, anchored by Edward Snowden's release of classified documents.

Edgar's book largely follows those mid-level players in Washington who are necessary to the surveillance debate, but none of whom are the central actors. He served first as an attorney at the ACLU, then as a privacy official at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and finally, at the book's end, as a professor. Perhaps because of secrecy and classification (to which he dedicates an entire chapter) prevents a fulsome discussion, or perhaps because of the positions Edgar occupied, "Beyond Snowden" never takes the reader into the room where it happens but rather draws extensively from news sources or conversations between national security lawyers. In this sense, Beyond Snowden is the "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" version of the surveillance debate, full of details on the supporting characters. The perspective of his tale leaves the impression that privacy and civil liberties interests are collateral concerns to the main business of intelligence activities, and likely the operators in the national security community view it as such.

Edgar's book is also a deeply personal story. The reader learns how Edgar himself was torn between his civil liberties roots and the national security concerns that animate the intelligence community. Like the Danish Prince, Edgar wrestles at length with the various questions in the surveillance debate: Is Edward Snowden a traitor or a hero? Is secrecy appropriate or too pervasive? Will technology answer privacy concerns or make the problem worse?

Organized by functional area, Edgar's book covers the Advocacy community, the Intelligence community, Congress, the courts, technologists and the Department of Justice. While each provides a different perspective, for a novice to the surveillance debate, the narrative and policy issues can be hard to follow, with pieces of it scattered across the various chapters. But the result is a complex mosaic of surveillance issues and those wonks among us who wrestle with them.

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