Whether Edward Snowden is a hero or traitor is a question that will be debated for years, but his view of the U.S. political process is disturbing.
The 29-year-old, who worked four years for the CIA before becoming an employee of a defense contractor for the National Security Agency, had top-secret clearance. Using that clearance, he told reporters, he acquired documents giving details of NSA computerized surveillance efforts both in and out of the United States. The Guardian, a British newspaper, has published several and may publish more.
Snowden’s actions were illegal. The surveillance programs he leaked — while highly controversial — apparently were not.
Snowden justified his actions as protecting U.S. democracy.
“These things need to be determined by the public, not just somebody who is hired by the government,” Snowden told The Guardian. “The public needs to decide whether these programs are right or wrong.”
The problem with Snowden’s justification is that the public, wisely or not, already made that decision.
In a nation as large and diverse as the United States, of course, “the public” is an amorphous term. Even among patriotic citizens, there is no consensus on the proper balance between privacy and security. The public also includes many U.S. enemies.
Americans have arrived at a way to make decisions despite domestic disagreement. The method is spelled out in the Constitution. We elect representatives. They pass laws. The judiciary reviews the constitutionality of those laws. The executive branch — headed by a president whom we elect — implements those laws.
Americans are sophisticated enough to understand that the transparency demanded of the law-making process does not always work in the implementation of those laws. In 1978, Congress created a secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It was a rough compromise by the American people. They prefer transparency, but they also want security. Information released to “the public” is released not just to loyal Americans, but to its enemies. Through its elected representatives, the public sacrificed some transparency for increased security.
The Patriot Act, passed in 2001 and reauthorized as recently as 2011, expanded on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Once again, the people — through their elected representatives — opted for a compromise that reduced personal privacy and governmental transparency but increased security. Many disagree with the law, but it was not haphazard. It includes checks and balances that involve every branch of the government.
Time will tell whether Snowden’s decision to release classified documents caused damage as measured in U.S. lives.
What seems clear, though, is that “the public” Snowden believes he served by leaking counter-terrorism strategies already weighed in on the issue. It did so through a political process dictated by the U.S. Constitution. By releasing the information to the entire world — including U.S. enemies — he subverted the American public’s decision on how to balance the conflicting goals of transparency, privacy and security.