Perhaps Snowden would argue that Congress and the courts haven’t been aggressive or diligent enough in their oversight, and that the NSA has dangerously misused its surveillance authority. Or maybe he would argue that he’s answering to a higher moral code, or that Congress and the courts are wrongly interpreting the Constitution. These claims will be tested in the coming debate, but we should be wary about endorsing any contention that it’s okay to violate laws because you’re acting on higher authority.
Snowden’s case is similar to that of CIA dissident Philip Agee. He published a revelatory memoir in 1975 called “Inside the Company: CIA Diary,” which outed the names and code names of scores of operatives with whom Agee had worked. He wrote in the introduction: “When I joined the CIA I believed in the need for its existence. After 12 years with the agency, I finally understood how much suffering it was causing. . . . I couldn’t sit by and do nothing.” Agee died in 2008 in Cuba, where he had sought refuge.
The CIA claimed at the time that it had suffered great damage from Agee’s revelations, but it’s still very much in business. Indeed, you could argue that the agency is far more aggressive and willing to use deadly force today than Agee ever envisioned. In that sense, we should be skeptical both of the efficacy of whistleblowers and of claims that unauthorized disclosures (as by Agee, or now Snowden) will cause irreparable harm. Usually these turn out to be overstated.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence who oversees the NSA, argued last weekend that Snowden made “reckless” disclosures about its monitoring of foreign Internet communications, and that “potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm” could come from the revelation of a court order authorizing collection of telephone call data from Verizon. Congress and the courts will examine such claims, but how should we as citizens evaluate them?
My guess is that Clapper is correct when he implicitly argues that these electronic surveillance programs are the United States’ best tool in combating terrorism. It’s probably also true that each revelation of U.S. capabilities weakens this advantage by putting adversaries such as al-Qaeda on notice about our snooping capabilities. The revelations likely make it harder, as well, for U.S. corporations and foreign allies to cooperate.