“I, sitting at my desk, had the authority to wiretap anyone.”
These were the words of former National Security contractor Edward Snowden broadcast this morning on two screens at the Conservative Political Action Committee in Oxon Hill, Maryland, sparking perhaps the most pointed public debate among activists assembled here this week.
In one corner: Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, a Republican who attacked Snowden, who has the country under federal indictment for theft and espionage, as a traitor and a coward who is “making common cause” with “a Stalinist dictator” by hiding out in Russia.
“Edward Snowden betrayed trust,” Gilmore said, speaking on a panel moderated by John Solomon, editor of the Washington Guardian. “He hid the fact that he was doing these things.”
Members of the audience applauded.
In the other corner: Bruce Fein, an attorney who brought a lawsuit challenging the NSA’s data surveillance policies.
“Without Snowden, we wouldn’t be having this debate today about the Fourth Amendment,” he said, prompting a new round of applause.
Fein’s view was bolstered by Charlie Kirk, executive director of Turning Point USA, a Lemont, Illinois-based nonprofit that focuses on teaching students about “true free market values,” according to its website.
Kirk said conservatives have an opportunity to use the NSA revelations to reach out to young people who he said are highly sensitive to government overreach. And, he said that audience members need to worry about being the subject of surveillance.
“We as conservatives are viewed as the bad guys in this country,” Kirk said. “The enemy is being redefined right now by this government. We as activists will soon be targeted by this.”
Gilmore countered that conservative “demagoguery” is unhelpful — a point of view didn’t sit well with many in the audience, drawing boos and catcalls.
“We as conservatives have an obligation to understand the difference between reasonable concerns and paranoia,” he said, as audience members grumbled. “To suggest that all of us are under scrutiny is nonsense demagoguery and it is not helpful to the conversation that conservatives have to have.”
At one point, as the former Virginia governor spoke about his experience with the Fourth Amendment as an attorney, an audience member yelled out: “You lie.”