Edward Snowden's dissent from orthodoxy about what Americans should know about government secrets has been incredibly important. It might also become dangerous. What happens when you blow the whistle so loudly that everyone not only hears you but becomes deaf?
When the 29-year-old former contractor gave reporters the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's directive Verizon Business, the NSA could no longer conceal the fact that it collected American telephone records. The legal, political and national security justifications for the practice are all intertwined, and the leak tore one strand from another: The FISA court provided "directives," not orders, which are really legal cover for businesses; terrorists with American phone numbers had no reason to suspect that NSA wasn't gulping up these records on some level, and the transfer of phone records from a box locked by the phone company to a box locked by a spy agency means that we're all generically under suspicion.
Now, maybe there is no better way. And harm — actual harm — is hard to find. Compare it to war, torture, even IRS targeting — the hypothetical future harm caused by thin auditing procedures at NSA is not in the same category. But by all means: Figure this out, in the right way.
Focus on how to prevent NSA from abusing its powers. That's the real issue here, right? You don't want a president to order the NSA to spy on Americans. You don't want voyeurs at Ft. Meade randomly reading your stuff. You don't want the Deep State targeting innocents based on their political beliefs. You DO want strong oversight. You want to know HOW minimization works. You want to know about active auditing. What does active auditing mean? You want to know how the NSA inspector general polices his own agency and you want to have some degree of comfort with the procedures. You want to know if the law is being stretched. You want to know whether your fellow Americans are comfortable. You want to know how the FISA court can enforce its own orders.
All this would tend to make me want to valorize Snowden. His first leak was helpful, classification be damned.
But Snowden didn't stop there.
He leaked slides from a training manual about a collection system called PRISM. In this, he shed light on the way the government legally targets foreigners whose communications pass through American servers or junctions. That was good. But he also exposed, directly, sources and methods. That's bad.
He decided on his own the U.S. was spying on China too much and provided IP addresses used by the NSA to break into foreign computer networks.
Then came the documents showing that the Americans and the Brits spied on other countries. That doesn't hold anyone accountable, especially not in any context that suggests that the intelligence was improperly collected, was misused, or involved a violation of principles, ethics, or tradecraft.
Then there's what Snowden says. He says the government wants to render him.
This is weird. The cyber stuff is curious at best. The spying-on-others stuff is willfully silly. What's the point? Seriously. What's the goal?
I have tried, but I find it very hard to write more about this subject without crashing into Snowden and his judgment.
I think his judgment requires a degree of vetting from the people who champion him.
It's possible to think that he did something really good and really brave, and then started to do things that were really foolish and even worse — like, stupid.
I think that the more Snowden leaks, the harder it becomes to have a productive debate about NSA surveillance. The more he leaks stuff that, while spectacular to gawk at, has no bearing on accountability and kinda oughta maybe remain secret, the easier it will be for those in power to pretend to have this debate, but really, in the end, not have it at all.
When revealing secrets itself becomes the goal, then I worry that the chance for true reform vanishes. It becomes easy, too easy, to personalize arguments. We start debating whether Glenn Greenwald is a good guy or not. We go tribal and find our enemies and harden positions and make it simple to trivialize something that is not worth trivializing.
If Snowden wants to create a pressure wall that explodes the entire SIGINT enterprise, then he will be partly responsible if the laws do not change, if Congress play-acts its oversight role, if we debate the semantics of whistleblower and traitor.
Does Snowden want to make a point about the inevitable surrender of privacy in a networked world? Or does he want to make a point about Americans and their right to be free of unreasonable encroachment by the government. Or... or what?
His end game is important.