Edward Snowden, the person who leaked the information about the National Security Agency's extensive data collection operations, worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a private firm with large government contracts. The incident has prompted several thoughts:
First, I have no problems with the government prosecuting Snowden. Snowden violated the law by disclosing classified government information. Snowden voluntarily obtained his security clearance, promising to maintain the secrecy of classified information given to him. People who divulge classified information should expect prosecution, as did Snowden. This helps to ensure the integrity of the system by providing a barrier against capricious disclosures.
Second, I applaud Snowden for divulging information about programs that he deemed detrimental to the nation. Informed public discourse will determine whether he was right. This view does not contradict my first point because doing what one perceives to be the right thing is not always without cost. People unwilling to pay a price for their beliefs do not hold those beliefs very dear.
Third, the U.S. government should not prosecute anyone who published or otherwise disseminated the information that Snowden revealed. These persons and entities (e.g., The Guardian newspaper) contribute to the public good by publishing news and have no legal obligation not to divulge classified information that they obtain legally, e.g., from a source like Snowden in contrast to conduct the newspaper conducting its own illegal wiretaps, break-ins, etc.
Fourth, I have mixed feelings about the U.S. government's data collection programs. At the present, there is no evidence that the government listens to phone conversations or otherwise mines the data that it collects without first obtaining the proper legal authority. However, over time government programs tend to expand rather than to contract, eroding safeguards rather than strengthening them. The danger of government overreach, of the government becoming Big Brother, is real; perhaps we are further down the road that most Americans realize. By raising public awareness, Edward Snowden has given the nation a gift.
Our Constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech, free assembly, and security of one's papers – all drafted before the electronic information age – if they are to be meaningful in the twenty-first century necessarily seem to include the right to communicate confidentially with persons of our choosing via email, internet, and voice without the government knowing either the identity of our correspondents or the content of the communication. The Constitution recognized that on occasion government may have a legitimate need to search a person's papers or otherwise limit individual freedoms, and stipulated that the government must seek a court authorized search warrant and comply with due process.
When national security consistently and pervasively trumps individual freedoms, we have lost our liberty. I stand with Patrick Henry: Give me liberty or give me death. The loss of liberty is a greater harm than any terrorist threat the nation has or can face. By definition, terrorist threats are not existential, i.e., terrorism, the tactic/strategy of the weak, does not pose a threat to the nation's continued existence. Government surveillance, on the other hand, does pose an existential threat to individual freedoms.
The nation needs to have an extended and thoughtful conversation about where to strike the balance between individual freedoms and security, and about the appropriate criteria and legal mechanisms for authorizing the government to intrude on individual freedoms.