Whether one views him as a heroic whistleblower helping to preserve civil liberties or a traitor endangering national security, Edward Snowden broke the law. Failing to prosecute him would send the message that people with top-secret clearance can choose for themselves whether to respect the law or not. That can’t happen. If Snowden made a sacrifice to protect civil liberties, then his sacrifice should extend to answering for his actions in court.
The law should give appropriate latitude to whistleblowers who uncover government wrongdoing — even if they are, like Snowden, government contractors rather than official employees. As a contractor working for the National Security Agency, Snowden isn't protected by the Whistle-blower Protection Enhancement Act, which excludes intelligence agencies, or a 2012 Obama administration directive, which covers intelligence workers but excludes contractors. Intelligence contractors should be covered. But whistle-blowing protections should only shield those who expose illegal wrongdoing — not people who merely want to make political statements against policies that, however objectionable, are properly authorized.
Snowden brought to light two National Security Agency programs: an effort to collect data from Verizon about millions of phone calls; and an operation called PRISM, which harvests metadata from Internet sites. Both programs appear to have been overseen by Congress and a top-secret court. It's conceivable but unlikely that a higher court will deem the program to be unconstitutional or operating outside the law. In the meantime, Snowden should be held accountable for breaking the law.
This is a troubling case on many levels. Revelations by Snowden, a contractor working for the National Security Agency, raise legitimate concerns about government overreach. Although the administration says the records are only searched after a warrant is issued by a court, the sheer size of the trove of data collected by the government is enough to give most people pause and a desire for assurances that it will never be abused.
A healthy debate over which tradeoffs Americans are willing to make between privacy and national security has begun. But Americans must also recognize the limits of that debate — and the cost. The pros and cons of an intelligence tactic can rarely be weighed in public without rendering it less useful. According to IntelCenter, a company that monitors jihadists online, Snowden's revelations have already prompted groups that plot attacks on Americans to beef up their use of encryption tools and adopt stronger measures to avoid detection.
Snowden, following in the footsteps of WikiLeaks and championing the larger cause of Internet freedom, represents both the promise and the danger of the information age. The technological advances that made metadata spying possible also made it possible for him to expose the program to the entire world in an instant. That's powerful. But it is also dangerous. It took years following Sept. 11, 2001, for the national security apparatus to agree to share information across agencies in a way that could detect future attacks. Now Snowden has shown, with a single keystroke, the potential downside of making so much information available to so many people. A single breach — whether by a vigilante like Snowden or a spy — can compromise everything. His actions, along with other leaks, will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on various agencies' willingness to open their files to one another.
Whether the benefits to society of Snowden's revelations are worth the cost remains to be seen. His trial should illuminate the question.