If You Think the NSA Debate Has Been Valuable, You Have Edward Snowden to Thank


Ruth Marcus thinks Edward Snowden is “insufferable,” and I guess that’s fine. I’ll concede that Snowden’s personal demeanor has set me on edge once or twice, so I can understand why he might aggravate people of a certain temperament.

But then there’s this:

Personality would not matter — at least it would not be so grating — if Snowden’s behavior were more upstanding and his actions more justified. On behavior, if Snowden is such a believer in the Constitution, why didn’t he stick around to test the system the Constitution created and deal with the consequences of his actions?

The harder question, because the cost-benefit analysis is inherently both opaque and subjective, concerns the actions themselves….Your assessment might be different. My scale weighs against Snowden. He launched an important, overdue debate and reassessment of collection practices. Perhaps that would not have happened otherwise. The intelligence community is reaping the bitter rewards of its combined aversion to transparency and its addiction to employing available technology to maximum potential.

On Marcus’s first question: come on. If it were a matter of sticking around and facing the possibility of a few years in prison, that would be one thing. Maybe we should feel that Snowden should have been willing to accept the consequences of his actions. But that was never in the cards, and surely Marcus knows it. In reality, Snowden was facing the near certainty of decades or more in Supermax solitary confinement. There’s just no way you can pretend that an unwillingness to surrender to torture of that magnitude says anything about how upstanding you are or how strongly you believe in the Constitution.

Marcus’s second point is even more peculiar. Why does she say that “perhaps” there would have been no debate without Snowden? Is that even an arguable position? I’d say that without Snowden, there was zero chance of any serious discussion of NSA surveillance taking place. Regardless of what you think about Snowden personally, you have him to thank if you believe this debate has been valuable. If it had been left up to President Obama and the security establishment, we wouldn’t know a hundredth of what Snowden has revealed.

I wouldn’t defend every last thing Snowden has done. But life is messy, and you don’t always get to control events with precision. Realistically, your choice is between (a) approving of what Snowden did, warts and all, or (b) approving of the status quo, with all of us none the wiser about what our government is doing. I’d say the choice is obvious.

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