The recent revelations about the National Security Agency's vast powers of surveillance have served to reaffirm, if any such thing was needed, the value of leaks and whistleblowers to both journalism and to democracy.
On Wednesday morning, Americans knew next to nothing about the extent to which their government was collecting data about them. By Friday morning, the country's director of national intelligence had confirmed the existence of a program that, in the words of the Washington Post, involved the NSA "tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets."
Americans learned about these things because there were people inside the government who were willing to leak them, and journalists who were willing to report on them. At a time when the Justice Department's surveillance of journalists has aroused deep anger, the flood of new information about the NSA's activities is a reminder of the vital need for those journalists to be able to do their jobs without fear.
The Guardian's explosive piece on Wednesday about the NSA's continual tracking of Verizon customers was a classic leak story. Glenn Greenwald, the blogger who broke the news for the paper, told the Times that his source was "a reader of mine" who "knew the views that I had and had an expectation of how I would display them."
That leak then inspired more reporting, as leaks often do. People could watch media outlets trying to outgun each other on Thursday as they sought to round out the story of the surveillance programs.
They could read the Wall Street Journal's report that AT&T and Sprint were also involved in the data-mining program, or watch an NBC News segment which said that "a secret surveillance program is collecting the telephone records of every single one of us."
They could learn that two senators had been sending cryptic warnings to them for years about how horrified they might be if they learned about the extent of the surveillance.
They could hear people they had voted into office admit that the program had been ongoing for seven years.
On Thursday, the Post and the Guardian upped the stakes when they reported about the so-called "PRISM" program that accessed the Internet companies (including AOL, HuffPost's parent company). Again, it was a classic whistleblowing case, as the Post vividly reported.
The paper identified its source as a "career intelligence officer" who had been horrified about what he was seeing:
Firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities, is what drove a career intelligence officer to provide PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to The Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer said.
It appears likely, if reports are to be believed, that that officer will be hunted down by the government whose secrets he has just exposed.
All of this information was completely secret on Wednesday morning. Two days later, the entire federal government apparatus had been forced to acknowledge its existence, and hundreds of millions people were much more aware of the huge size of the American surveillance state. As the Associated Press's Matt Apuzzo tweeted, "THIS is why America needs 'leakers.'"