Two Years After Snowden, a Plea for Perspective

In this image made from video released by WikiLeaks on Friday, Oct. 11, 2013, former National Security Agency systems analyst
In this image made from video released by WikiLeaks on Friday, Oct. 11, 2013, former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden speaks during a presentation ceremony for the Sam Adams Award in Moscow, Russia. Should Snowden ever return to the U.S., he would face criminal charges for leaking information about NSA surveillance programs. But legal experts say a trial could expose more classified information as his lawyers try to build a case in an open court that the operations he exposed were illegal. (AP Photo)

It was two years ago this week -- on May 20, 2013 -- that Edward Snowden, at the time an anonymous 29-year-old contractor for the National Security Agency, boarded a plane from Hawaii to Hong Kong, a trove of pilfered classified documents in tow.

That journey marked the first leg of a meandering, improbable, round-the-world flight from justice -- a "Magical Mystery Tour," as a few former Obama Administration colleagues derisively dubbed it -- that would lead Snowden into the headlines, the history books and the wary embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Over the months that followed, in a series of rolling disclosures to the press, Snowden's stolen documents have upended the U.S. national security establishment, roiled the "Five Eyes" intelligence alliance, and ignited a fierce public debate about mass surveillance.

This unfolding discussion has also revealed that, for all their differences, some Snowden apologists, and many defenders of mass surveillance, have at least one thing in common: a remarkable unwillingness -- or perhaps inability -- to approach questions of surveillance and personal privacy as anything but binary choices.

Consider the arguments advanced by former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, an ardent proponent of the NSA's metadata collection program who seems to favor surveillance without scruple -- and brooks little dissent. In op-eds with sensational headlines like "Leaking Secrets Empowers Terrorists" and "NSA Reform That Only ISIS Could Love," Mukasey (at times accompanied by former NSA Director Michael Hayden) dismisses "claims of pervasive spying" as "downright irrational," and those who fear such intrusion as suffering from "delusions of reference."

Largely neglecting to account for the many well-documented abuses and misadventures of decades past (see: Church Committee, et al), Mukasey and his compatriots breathlessly posit that unanticipated "additional impacts" of intelligence reforms "may include holes in the ground where buildings used to stand and empty chairs where people used to sit."

This, of course, is not an argument. It is fearmongering, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In this savage century, by Mukasey's shallow reckoning, our only viable option is to indiscriminately monitor virtually everyone and everything.

Regrettably, those of us who consider this notion absurd on its face too often allow the rejoinder to be offered by a vocal minority that's only slightly less prone to similarly facile reasoning -- particularly where their patron saint, Edward Snowden, is concerned.

In the wake of an appeals court decision holding that the NSA's metadata collection program is illegal as currently constituted, there has been a predictable rush to proclaim the righteousness of Snowden's case -- and the canonization of the man himself. In opinion pieces, documentaries and even guerilla art installations, Snowden is increasingly portrayed as a "hero," whose "courageous" stand on mass surveillance has been "vindicated" -- not only by the court's ruling, but by a growing sense that the American public has at last been awakened to the fact that domestic surveillance is an issue worthy of public debate.

On this last point, even President Obama has conceded -- however grudgingly -- that Snowden's actions helped to bring an important, national issue to the fore. But in their eagerness to declare victory, Snowden's admirers ignore an inconvenient reality. Whatever modest good he may have effected, it is far outweighed by the immense (and by some accounts immeasurable) harm wrought by his other disclosures -- many of which were precisely as indiscriminate, and perhaps as destructive, as he holds the injurious surveillance state to be.

As others have amply demonstrated, Snowden's intelligence leaks were anything but targeted, and they cannot have been motivated by any particular outrage of principle. As John Oliver (of all people) recently induced him to admit, Snowden stole and distributed potentially millions of pages of highly classified documents without so much as giving them a quick skim.

Nor did he confine his disclosures to programs, initiatives, or agencies whose actions he perceived to be especially troubling. He did not draw a line, as the old saying goes, at the water's edge. Most damningly, he did not offer -- and has never offered -- any coherent rationale for undermining an untold number of legitimate foreign intelligence operations, all without yielding any discernible public benefit.

Too often forgotten amid the jeers and applause of the (worthwhile) mass surveillance debate is the fact that Snowden also revealed sensitive details about the NSA's diligent efforts to keep pace with emerging cyber threats. He disclosed critical information about the ways in which America's espionage agencies collaborate with their foreign counterparts to gather routine intelligence. Even more troubling, he obtained potentially compromising information on ongoing U.S. military operations. And he thoughtlessly revealed techniques that the United States uses to locate and monitor known terrorists operating against American interests overseas -- a disclosure that may have prompted terrorist groups to shift their tactics in order to evade detection.

If Snowden's leaks concerning so-called "domestic spying" can be construed -- however convincingly -- as principled, constructive, or patriotic, many of his other disclosures can reasonably be viewed as anything but. At best, his haphazard approach can be described as reckless, irresponsible, arrogant, or simply naïve; at worst, it veers dangerously close to the quasi-treasonous caricature his detractors have artfully propagated.

Whichever perspective one brings to this discussion, the inescapable fact is that we are ill-served by any brand of crowing absolutism -- whether peddled by individual actors, like Snowden, or by current or former officers of our government, a la Mukasey. We cannot allow ourselves to ruled from the poles, so to speak -- dominated by either reactionary point of view -- especially where core questions of national security are concerned.

In the days ahead, as we reappraise Edward Snowden's complicated legacy, now two years old -- and as Congress considers a package of sensible NSA reforms -- what's called for is a dose of clear-eyed realism, an appetite for nuance, and a high tolerance for uncertainty. We must not permit this discussion to be demagogued by the Mukaseys and Snowdens of the world, who consider "surveil everything" or "surveil nothing" to be our only options. Like it or not, the right answer -- and the appropriate balance -- lies somewhere in the uncomfortable gray area in between.