1) I believe what I wrote two days ago: that the United States and the world have gained much more, in democratic accountability, than they have lost in any way with the revelation of these various NSA monitoring programs. That these programs are legal -- unlike the Nixon "Plumbers" operation, unlike various CIA assassination programs, unlike other objects of whistle-blower revelations over the years -- is the most important fact about them. They're being carried out in "our" name, ours as Americans, even though most of us have had no idea of what they entailed. The debate on the limits of the security-state is long overdue, and Edward Snowden has played an important role in hastening its onset.
2) Among the strongest arguments against a surveillance state is that it depends on the subjective judgment of its millions of employees (a) to be applied without over-reach or abuse, or (b) to exist at all. One 29-year-old has just demonstrated the second point. Edward Snowden didn't like the way the system worked, and so he has effectively blown it up. The bigger problem may be with the first point, option (a) -- people who think there should be more intrusiveness or prying. The Founders' fundamental concern, often distilled as "If men were angels...", was to avoid giving anyone powers that, in the wrong hands, could be abused. The surveillance state is giving too many people too much power -- either to destroy its workings, as Snowden has tried to do, or to abuse and extend them.
3) I am sorry that Snowden chose Hong Kong as his point of refuge. To be clear: I love Hong Kong. My own brother lived there for many years; I like everything about its verve of life and energy; I admire the determination of its press, judicial institutions, and civil society to maintain their independence after the transfer from British control to that of the People's Republic of China. As shown by these amazing headlines last week in the South China Morning Post (sent by a friend) on the 24th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square crackdown:
But here is the reality. Hong Kong is not a sovereign country. It is part of China -- a country that by the libertarian standards Edward Snowden says he cares about is worse, not better, than the United States. China has even more surveillance of its citizens (it has gone very far toward ensuring that it knows the real identity of everyone using the internet); its press is thoroughly government-controlled; it has no legal theory of protection for free speech; and it doesn't even have national elections. Hong Kong lives a time-limited separate existence, under the "one country, two systems" principle, but in a pinch, it is part of China.
I don't know all the choices Snowden had about his place of refuge. Maybe he thought this was his only real option. But if Snowden thinks, as some of his comments seem to suggest, that he has found a bastion of freer speech, then he is ill-informed; and if he knowingly chose to make his case from China he is playing a more complicated game.
And one more point: I have friends who work at Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden's employer at the time he (apparently) decided to leak the PRISM info. I am sure they disagree with my claim that the leaks have done more good than harm. I am sorry for the damage to their firm, which is another reminder of the danger and folly of creating systems that can be upended by one dissenting voice.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the new book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which has been a New York Times best-seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.