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September 4, 2015

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Edward Snowden: a profile in courage

We’re going to be learning a lot more about Edward Snowden over the next few days, and he and his actions will be mightily debated. Traitor or patriot? Benedict Arnold or Daniel Ellsberg? In the end, I think, he’ll be thought an American hero.

Snowden is the 29-year-old analyst who last week unveiled the existence of a surveillance program — code-named PRISM — run by the National Security Agency, the nation’s top-secret spy shop. PRISM allegedly has the ability to comb through almost every digital or electronic communication we make, whether it be by telephone, email, Skype, Twitter or other social media. It’s the kind of stuff featured in novels, movies and TV, but stuff that we knew was just fiction. The ravings of paranoiacs and conspiracists aside, our government really wouldn’t do that — nor, we thought, could it.

But, from the documents so far released, we now know it can. And from there to actually snooping into the lives of Americans is a very small step, one that may already have been taken. President Barack Obama, responding to questions about PRISM, said that the war on terror requires “trade-offs” on our liberties. And having just learned about the IRS’s politically motivated harassment of conservative groups, it’s not hard to believe that those “trade-offs” might be extensive. Snowden certainly thinks so. “What they’re doing poses an existential threat to democracy,” he says.

Even before Snowden came forward — voluntarily, it should be noted — the White House was already promising an aggressive investigation and prosecution. Members of Congress are split. Republican Rep. Peter King, who heads up the Subcommittee on Homeland Security, called for Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong, where he was holed up. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is angry, as well, urging prosecution. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is going the opposite direction, threatening to file a lawsuit to block the NSA’s surveillance.

Americans, I expect, will be divided on the issue as well. Those who prefer security will support the NSA’s efforts. Those fearful of government overreach will not.

But no matter which side of the equation you’re on, Snowden’s actions are justified, and for a quite different reason. The real problem with the NSA program may not be what it was doing but that none of us knew. Secrecy is the death of democracy. Without information, without knowing, there can be no opportunity for debate, no oversight by the people.

Indeed, the whole structure of surveillance that we have built up since 9/11 has a Kafkaesque quality to it. There are secret courts that issue secret opinions that no one is allowed to read. When spies demand information from companies such as Verizon or Google, those executives aren’t permitted even to acknowledge what information they have handed over. Even members of Congress are held to bizarre standards of secrecy, which is why for some time we’ve had vague warnings from Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Ron Wyden (both members of the Intelligence Committee) that something was amiss but, until Snowden’s expose, no ability on their part to say exactly what.

This is no way for a democracy to function. Obama says, “I think we’ve struck the right balance” between privacy and security, but, so far, that claim has been impossible to assess. Certainly Udall and Wyden disagree, and the rest of us, if we had known, might well have disagreed, too. But since we didn’t know, we couldn’t.

Unlike Benedict Arnold, who actually defected to the British, Snowden wasn’t trying to help another government or terrorist group. He was, rather, more like Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who, with the help of his colleague Anthony Russo (as well as the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s office), released the Pentagon Papers. Those documents revealed that U.S. officials had been systematically misleading the public about the Vietnam War. The logic then was the same as it is now: If the people aren’t told the truth, then they are no longer the ones running their government. Ellsberg today says Snowden has shown “the kind of courage that we expect of people on the battlefield.” Indeed. We owe him our gratitude — and perhaps even our democracy.

Tom Keane writes for the Boston Globe.

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