Where's Waldo Snowden?

Computer wizard Edward Snowden is leading American intelligence and law enforcement on a reality game of "Where's Waldo?" Snowden flew out of Hong Kong to Moscow, and from there he's headed to parts unknown. Our government knows everything about what phone calls we make, but they can't stop this guy from skipping one country to the next. Call Snowden a traitor, but he sure is entertaining.

What he did revealing the government's giant electronic snooping operation is almost certainly a crime, but it is also a public service. Any man who gets former Vice President Dick Cheney quacking like an indignant duck is on to something. While the government builds terabyte farms to store electronic information, Americans have a right to know and debate what is done in the name of their own security.

One of the first things government does when freedom and liberty are threatened is to limit them. They are like the driver who jerks the wheel in the wrong direction when the car skids.

This couples with our government's tendency to do two other things: keep secrets and collect information. In the recent revelations about the National Security Agency, the secret was that the government is collecting information about who we talk to on the telephone and what we do on the Internet. Their consolation to the public is that while they have the information, they're not really looking at most of it. They only run the numbers when something looks suspicious. It's like a guy takes your wallet and promises not to run up the credit cards, unless he really needs them.

By way of justification, the head of the National Security Agency says that electronic surveillance of telephone and Internet traffic has foiled about 50 terrorist plots since 9/11. That has to be one of the phoniest statistics I've heard. Let's be charitable and say they have an 80 percent rate of success in foiling terror plots. Where are the other 20 percent they missed?

Given all the money it spends, there's no reason the NSA would not claim inflated crime statistics just like any local police department. It's HBO's The Wire with a national budget. I've been to any number of press conferences in which the cops have arrested a suspect and recovered stolen goods from three burglaries then announce, "With this arrest we are clearing 30 cases." Damn right they are.

The NSA won't say what the plots were or how they busted them. What they do say is "trust us." This comes from the same intelligence cult that missed the 9/11 attacks but claimed it did know about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Their final line of defense is that what they are doing is legal. Enfranchised by the Patriot Act and rubber-stamped by the anti-terrorism FISA court they can rightfully say, "This has all been approved." But remember that Richard Nixon famously told David Frost, "When the President does it, that means it is not illegal."

The case of Edward Snowden is a comedy in which the actual spies accuse the guy who called 911 of being a spy.

We have had several occasions in recent American history when our government collected information on its own citizens in the name of National Security. They did it during the Red scares of the 50's and during the protests against the Vietnam War, as if anyone who disagreed with government needed watching. It was wrong then and it's wrong now.

What Snowden has done, 12 years after the 9/11 attacks, is cause us to ask how much of our personal freedom and security we want to give up for the vague notion of national security. We've given up our shoes at the airport. Do we want to give up the right to call Mom on Sunday without the government knowing?

I'm not too worried about Edward Snowden. He might spend a few years in jail or the rest of his life in Iceland. He'll be OK, and I'm betting he'll be back.

In 1992 I stood at the bottom of Ruby Ridge in Idaho, surrounded by Federal agents laying wait for a little-known religious recluse named Randy Weaver who was accused of illegally selling a shotgun. He was the Edward Snowden of the moment and all the resources of Federal law enforcement were thrown against him.

Four years later I was in northern Montana at a standoff between the FBI and a bunch of anti-government nuts who called themselves the Freemen. Once again, the full army of Federal law enforcement was thrown against a common enemy of the state. And there among the legions of cops, reporters, and the curious, was Randy Weaver, a free man rubbing elbows with the FBI who came to see what all the fuss was about.

It's been a long time since F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "There are no second acts in American lives." Now, there are second, third, and fourth acts. Today the world is searching for the fugitive Edward Snowden. Tomorrow he'll have his own show on CNN.