I remember the first time I ever visited the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
Overnight, the campus had been transformed into a quasi-carnival ground. The halls were adorned with balloons and ribbons and festive music resounded throughout.
Temporary booths and display tables lined the compound’s hallowed halls, manned by Agency reps who gleefully passed out CIA-branded novelties to kids like me who only had the opportunity to visit their parent’s mysterious workplace on one occasion each year for “Family Day.”
Entranced by the euphoric atmosphere, I told myself that, one day, I would follow in my father’s footsteps and work for the Agency.
In college, I did just that. After submitting to a nearly year-long background check, I secured an internship with the CIA in the summer of 2007.
That summer, I entered headquarters for the first time not as a civilian, but rather as a public servant working at the world’s largest clandestine intelligence agency.
Balloons and ribbons no longer lined the walls to distract from their Alabama Marble finish. Instead, something else on the walls caught my eye as I walked through the main entrance lobby. Between two flags – one American and the other displaying the CIA seal – were 107 carved stars. Above them read the words:
“IN HONOR OF THOSE MEMBERS OF THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THE SERVICE OF THEIR COUNTRY.”
Each time I passed the Memorial Wall, I would silently acknowledge what these fallen agents had given their lives to protect, hearkening the CIA ethos:
“Service. We put Nation first, Agency before unit, and mission before self. We take pride in being agile, responsive, and consequential.”
“Integrity. We uphold the highest standards of lawful conduct. We are truthful and forthright, and we provide information and analysis without institutional or political bias. We maintain the Nation’s trust through accountability and oversight.”
Excellence. We bring the best of who we are to everything we do. We are self aware, reflecting on our performance and learning from it. We strive to give our officers the tools, experiences, and leadership they need to excel.
Courage. We accomplish difficult, high-stakes, often dangerous tasks. In executing mission, we carefully manage risk but we do not shy away from it. We value sacrifice and honor our fallen.
Teamwork. We stand by and behind one another. Collaboration, both internal and external, underpins our best outcomes. Diversity and inclusion are mission imperatives.
Stewardship. We preserve our ability to obtain secrets by protecting sources and methods from the moment we enter on duty until our last breath.”
I didn’t end up pursuing a career with the Agency, but that code stuck with me. It was my fervent belief that my father, myself and others who swore that oath to protect and serve our nation, putting country before self, were bound by that promise for life.
Enter Edward Snowden.
When I first learned that the now 30-year-old former CIA employee and government contractor leaked confidential documents exposing NSA programs that collect vast amounts of information on telephone calls, emails and other personal data on American citizens, I was reviled by the news.
I was angry that the government that I once served so egregiously flouted its constitutional boundaries. I was angry that Edward Snowden had violated his oath of stewardship. To be honest, I didn’t know who to be angrier with.
Clandestine operations are absolutely necessary to safeguarding our national interests, citizens and democratic ideals. As a society, we entrust our government with this task, collectively authorizing them to operate on our behalf, even in secret.
When the Patriot Act was passed in 2001, I felt that the government had broken that social contract. I felt the same way when we learned about secret detentions of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay. And again when we learned that the NSA was secretly wiretapping American citizens.
None of these actions were acceptable, and as a society, we were well within our right to be outraged by them.
So, too, were we justified in our outrage when we learned that the NSA was collecting personal information on millions of Americans, needlessly.
When the government oversteps its mandate and unabashedly violates our personal liberties, society at-large suffers.
Millennials, who came of age in a post-9/11 world have seen these violations occur with troubling frequency. It has left us disenchanted. Now, Millennials are experiencing the highest levels distrust in all government institutions ever seen, according to a recent poll by Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
It’s a trust that our leaders need to take steps to rebuild. By blowing the whistle, Snowden illustrated that they still have a long way to go on that front.
But while our intelligence services violated its ethos, Snowden did as well.
In an interview with NBC’s Brian William’s that aired Wednesday night, Snowden described being tasked by federal government to “put systems to work for the United States,” having “done that at all levels from — from the bottom on the ground all the way to the top.”
He was entrusted to develop “sources and methods for keeping our information and people secure in the most hostile and dangerous environments around the world.”
By mass releasing so much sensitive data, Snowden betrayed that trust.
He provided our enemies who are intent on harming our fellow countrymen with information that both facilitates and empowers their cause. He imperiled his colleagues operating abroad, jeopardizing both their livelihoods and their lives. Because of his actions, those operatives faced a greater likelihood of having a star etched into the Alabama Marble at Langley in their honor.
Say what you will about whether or not the NSA needed to be exposed, but the way Snowden did it is the furthest thing from heroism.
Who the real villain is in this case? That, I can’t answer.
What I can say, however, is that our faith in our government institutions is slipping. We need that trust to serve as the foundation for our society, and neither Snowden’s nor the government’s actions did anything to help rebuild that dwindling trust.
For our country to grow stronger, to prosper and to spread the ideals of democracy across the world, we must be better. We must work to restore that faith in our collective selves. As President John F. Kennedy said while addressing the General Court of Massachusetts before swearing his oath of office:
“I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. ‘We must always consider’, he said, ‘that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.’
Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.”
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