It’s hard to doubt Edward Snowden’s sincerity.
The 29-year-old government contractor said Sunday that he was the one who leaked documents to the Washington Post and the Guardian detailing U.S. intelligence-gathering techniques. In interviews, Snowden has spoken passionately about what he sees as an invasive government data-collection apparatus.
Though he fled to Hong Kong, he asserted that he could have tried to defect to a hostile government with a list of every National Security Agency (NSA) officer in the world if he meant to harm the United States or merely wanted to sell out. Instead, he appears determined to prompt a discussion about the privacy U.S. citizens are sacrificing in the name of security.
One of Snowden’s documents has revealed a massive program apparently aimed at collecting “metadata,” though not the contents, of every phone call placed or received in the United States.
This represents a previously unknown and unanticipated interpretation of the Patriot Act — the disclosure of which probably has not harmed national security and should have happened without Snowden forcing the matter.
The other program Snowden exposed, called PRISM, concerned the collection of Internet data from firms such as Google and Facebook. The PowerPoint slides he released put the meat of real-world detail on the dry bones of the anti-terrorism statutes Congress has passed. But the amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that Congress approved in 2008 authorized, though in broad strokes, programs such as PRISM.
Just as it is important not to exaggerate the national security risks of transparency, it is also important not to give into the anti-government paranoia of grandstanding politicians such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who on Sunday invoked the tyranny of King George III to criticize programs that are the result of a checked, deliberative process across three branches of government.
Part of what makes this different is that if enough Americans expect more privacy after the debate Snowden incited, their representatives in Washington can act on their behalf.