American heroes come in many forms, and historically, one of them is acting selflessly in the public interest and in defiance of established authority. Daniel Ellsberg did just that in 1971 when he copied and divulged the contents of the Pentagon Papers. (As some of you know, I was an author of the Papers and testified for Ellsberg at his trial in Los Angeles.) Eric Snowden is another such hero. The huge tranche of highly classified documents about NSA eavesdropping that he revealed, arguably in violation of the Espionage Act, performed a public service. He set off a nationwide debate on mass government collection of private communications—not to mention eavesdropping on the communications of other countries’ leaders—that has led to examination of the National Security Agency’s mission and some restrictions on the scope of its spying.
As so often happens in such cases, some people, especially in government, have done their utmost to blame the messenger and protect their turf. They have tried to pin a “traitor” label on Snowden just as they did on Ellsberg and Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame. The editorial board of the New York Times, with the experience of publishing the Pentagon Papers behind it, produced an outstanding defense of Snowden (June 11, 2013), correctly pointing out that his “goal was to expose and thus stop the intelligence community from what he considered unwarranted intrusions into the lives of ordinary Americans. ‘My sole motive,’ he told The Guardian [of London], ‘is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.’”
In the same interview with The Guardian (published June 9, 2013), Snowden also said: “I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in. . . .I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest. There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is.”
Indeed: transparency, in order to expose abuse of power, is the issue.
Some might say that Snowden’s actions have damaged national security. But the only evidence of damage has been to the reputation of the United States as an upholder of the rule of law and a respecter of individual freedom. Those who keep the nation’s secrets are always trying to expand their authority to obtain and classify “information,” giving higher priority to secret government than to the rule of law. Snowden—like Ellsberg, Assange, and the Watergate and Iran-Contra hearings—exposed this threat to democracy. As Snowden recently said, the oath he swore on becoming an NSA contractor “was not to secrecy. That oath was to protect and defend our Constitution and the policies of this nation—[from] all enemies, foreign and domestic” (The Nation, May 26, 2014). At great personal risk, he did just that.
A critical other piece of that reputation is being truthful. While Snowden, Ellsberg, and others “spoke truth to power,” some high US officials did the opposite: they used their power to hide the truth. The most glaring example concerning the NSA is the testimony in March 2013 of the director of national intelligence, James Clapper. When he was asked by Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden whether the NSA collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans” —Clapper said “No, sir . . . not wittingly.” (Faced with some angry senators, the administration fully backed Clapper and said he “did not intend to mislead Congress.” Clapper later apologized, but his lie went unpunished.)
Snowden served the country by setting in motion a national debate over the costs and consequences of government surveillance and data collection on ordinary citizens. President Obama said that Snowden “shed more heat than light” on that issue. But the National Security Archive had it right: “What the President did not say was that these surveillance reforms would never even have been contemplated without the Snowden revelations. In fact, these leaks . . . disproved a series of lies that the administration and its Intelligence Community repeatedly told the American public in an attempt to keep this surveillance in the dark” (http://nsarchive.wordpress.com/2014/01/17/the-top-10-surveillance-lies-edward-snowdens-leaks-shed-heat-and-light-on/.) The National Security Archive, which vigorously pursues declassification of official documents, presents ten cases of official lying about NSA’s activities at that web site. (Go to http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv to view the numerous documentary collections the Archive has assembled.)
When senior officials like Clapper knowingly lie at Congressional hearings, they commit a felony: contempt of Congress. But they are rarely punished. Those who dare to violate bureaucratic boundaries, however, and throw the international spotlight on official conduct that is at the least embarrassing and at worst unlawful and immoral, have no such license. Edward Snowden did the right thing.