The NSA Leaks Are About Democracy, Not Just Privacy

Edward Snowden-sourced stories that aren't about spying on Americans still have an important value because they inform citizens about public policy.

Recent criticism of Edward Snowden has focused on the fact that the documents he gave reporters included not just evidence of spying on U.S. citizens but also revelations about other NSA activities. His critics say leaks about programs affecting the privacy of Americans could be legitimate whistleblowing, but that various other disclosures are deserving of prosecution. Fred Kaplan offers one version of the argument:

... if his stolen trove of beyond-top-secret documents had dealt only with the NSA’s domestic surveillance, then some form of leniency might be worth discussing.

But Snowden ... furnished stories about the NSA’s interception of email traffic, mobile phone calls, and radio transmissions of Taliban fighters in Pakistan’s northwest territories; about an operation to gauge the loyalties of CIA recruits in Pakistan; about NSA email intercepts to assist intelligence assessments of what’s going on inside Iran; about NSA surveillance of cellphone calls “worldwide,” an effort that (in the Post’s words) “allows it to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect.”

In his first interview with the South China Morning Post, Snowden revealed that the NSA routinely hacks into hundreds of computers in China and Hong Kong.

Implicit here is the notion that the information contained in those stories should not be public. So let's take a closer look at what one of them says. The first story linked in the excerpt above does discuss "the NSA's interception of email traffic, mobile phone calls, and radio transmissions of Taliban fighters in Pakistan’s northwest territories," though I am not sure how useful that was to the Taliban: The fact that the U.S. successfully killed its members presumably tipped them off to the fact that our government had breached their communications security, and the Washington Post says other details were withheld at government request. (If the story tipped the Taliban off to something important that they wouldn't have known, a possibility to which I am open, I'd like a specific explanation of what—that something is classified is a terrible proxy for the need to keep it secret.)

In any case, the Washington Post article tells us a whole lot more too. Most significantly, it reports on "the intricate collaboration between the CIA and the NSA in the drone campaign." Why does that matter? Well, someone angry about NSA spying on Americans, but supportive of the drone campaign abroad, might conclude from the story that severely cutting the NSA's budget isn't as desirable as they thought. "Senator Paul," they might write in a letter, "be aware that the NSA does have value!"

A conscientious objector to the drone program who isn't much bothered by Section 215 metadata collection might decide that the NSA's role in targeted killing makes it complicit in immoral behavior, and that it ought to be subject to more scrutiny. "Spying is one thing, but helping to kill is another," he or she might write in a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein. "Investigate whether NSA information led any innocents to die, and if that happened, initiate appropriate reforms." The article made me, an opponent of both America's targeted-killing program and domestic surveillance, wonder whether signature strikes–the ones where we don't know the identities of people we're killing—are ever triggered by the NSA's "hop analysis." If so, I have new, powerful objections to the policy as it currently operates. 

Notice what's implicit in the scenarios I'm laying out: that there is inherent value in citizens being given access to information when it informs their judgments about public policy. Information of this sort is a prerequisite for meaningful civic participation. There ought to be a strong presumption in favor of making it public, especially when the policy at issue is as significant and controversial as targeted killing. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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