Later this year, the cinematic adaptation of Edward Snowden’s trials and tribulations will hit theaters. Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays the whistleblower, Oliver Stone sits in the director’s chair, and mini-major studio Open Road Films is handling distribution.

The upcoming release has reignited discussion about Snowden, who is exiled in Russia. For those of us who harbor mixed feelings about his actions, questions abound. These pertain to everything from Snowden’s motives to whether or not Vladimir Putin is compensating him.

On the other hand, queries fly about the American military-industrial complex. How much data can Big Brother amass about minute details of our lives? Is this data shared with private defense contractors? If so, what are the security protocols?

Pondering what super-sized government can do — especially in the realm of civil rights and liberties — harks back to February 2013, when a declassified Justice Department memo confirmed that drone strikes are used to execute United States citizens.

This is supposedly necessary to enhance our national security.

Individuals targeted for assassination need not be on the verge of carrying out a terrorist attack. They only have to materially plot against this country to find themselves eligible for a death sentence without trial — a government official replacing the judge and jury.

That caused many across the political spectrum to become quite alarmed. Libertarians, constitutional conservatives, civil rights-minded progressives, and left-wing ‘peaceniks’ alike demanded answers about prevailing drone policy.

“The threat posed by al-Qaida and its associated forces demands a broader concept of imminence in judging when a person continually planning terror attacks presents an imminent threat,” the memo read.

Such a thing seems reasonable enough. Most Americans probably want to see more proactive policies for fighting terrorism.

The Justice Department also noted that “(a) decision maker determining whether an al-Qaida operational leader presents an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States must take into account that certain members of Al-Qaida … are continually plotting attacks against the United States.”

In a textbook example of stating the obvious, the memo claimed “al-Qaida would engage in such attacks regularly to the extent it were able to do so.”

What sort of precedent does using drones to kill Americans without trial create? How far can the government go to ensure our safety before it undermines our constitutional rights?

The Justice Department had a point when it said “the U.S. government may not be aware of all al-Qaida plots as they are developing and thus cannot be confident that none is about to occur; and that … the nation may have a limited window of opportunity within which to strike in a manner that both has a high likelihood of success and reduces the probability of American casualties.”

Does this make drone strikes necessary, especially on such a wide scale? What kind of judicial oversight is applied? What if the court system has questions to present?

“Under the circumstances described in this paper, there exists no appropriate judicial forum to evaluate these constitutional considerations,” the memo held. “It is well established that ‘matters intimately related to foreign policy, and national security are rarely proper subjects for judicial intervention,’” which summed up the government position in a succinct fashion.

There can be little doubt that the drone program is dangerous. After all, a man’s death warrant may go signed by anonymous government officials minus a capital charge in court. Talk about a cause for concern. Whatever happened to due process?

We live in extraordinarily challenging times. The world is changing at an unparalleled rate. If grand-scale drone strikes are required to stop unimaginable horror, then perhaps we can understand. However, in our understanding, should we offer approval?

This question is for America’s left, right, and center to answer. There “other side” can hardly be blamed for an all-encompassing dilemma which not just defines our legal system, but moral character.

What if a would-be suicide bomber is killed by drone strike, and hundreds of lives are saved? On the flipside, suppose faulty intelligence leads a drone to target innocent civilians, and hundreds perish?

How much relevance does the judiciary retain in our age of drone “law enforcement?”

Say what we will about Snowden, but he sparked a crucially important conversation.


Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at