The important thing right now isn’t whether Edward Snowden should be labeled hero or villain. First, let’s have the debate he sparked over surveillance and privacy. Then we can decide how history should remember him.
Snowden is the 29-year-old intelligence analyst and computer geek who has been leaking some of the National Security Agency’s most precious secrets to journalists from The Washington Post and the Guardian. He is now on the lam, having checked out of the Hong Kong hotel where he was holed up for several weeks as he orchestrated a worldwide media splash that shows no sign of ending.
Snowden betrayed his employer, the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, and his promise not to divulge classified information. He paints what he did as an act of civil disobedience, but he has decided to seek political asylum abroad rather than surrender to authorities and accept the consequences. In published interviews, he comes across as grandiose to the point of self-parody, a legend in his own mind.
He is an imperfect messenger, to say the least. But his message should not be ignored.
Did you know that the NSA is compiling and storing a massive, comprehensive log of our domestic phone calls? I didn’t. Nor did I know that the agency sucks in huge volumes of email traffic and other electronic data overseas — not just communications originating in trouble spots such as Pakistan but also in countries such as Germany and Britain. I would have thought that anyone who accused the U.S. government of “omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance,” as Snowden did in an exchange with the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, was being paranoid. Now I’m not so sure.
As President Barack Obama noted, nobody is eavesdropping on the phone calls of U.S. citizens and residents. I’m not certain this could be said about email communications in other countries, some of which take privacy as seriously as we do. British Foreign Secretary William Hague felt obliged Monday to reassure Parliament that “our intelligence-sharing work with the United States is subject to ministerial and independent oversight” and to legislative scrutiny.