Breathe, People: We Shouldn't Rush to Judgment About Edward Snowden

Given how little we know about the NSA leaker, committing to any clear position on his actions doesn't make sense yet.

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Edward Snowden: Hero or traitor? Whisteblower or leaker?

The national debate that began Sunday afternoon after 29-year-old former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden outed himself in a videotaped interview with The Guardian has split Democrats and Republicans alike, with civil libertarian progressives contending with security-minded ones and Paulite libertarians facing off with neocons and hawkish conservatives. The Progressive Change Committee on Monday established an Edward Snowden Legal Defense Fund, the White House is being petitioned on his behalf, and the Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into his actions.

While it's true that the NSA's PRISM and metadata surveillance programs have been hinted at, if not revealed, some time ago, the latest round of revelations have set off shock waves, whereas reports in 2009 -- and similar NSA leaks in 2012 -- barely disturbed the surface of national public opinion.

You would have to be myopic not to be concerned about the revelations in The Guardian and The Washington Post, especially if you read them in their first, unaltered drafts. We are about to have the frank national conversation about the balance between security and liberty the president says he wants to have -- and that wouldn't be possible without Snowden's revelations and the declassification of material that has followed in their wake.

Everyone should take a deep breath. For those tempted to lionize Snowden for partially unshading totalitarian "turnkey tyranny," as he has dubbed it, a word of caution seems in order. For those who are panicked about the revelations, some calm's in order, too. We don't yet have a clear sense of how the programs work -- and even less of a sense of Snowden, who has taken refuge in Hong Kong with more national security secrets than Barton Gellman of the Washington Post thinks it's wise to disclose to the public.

What Snowden did took extraordinary conviction and great personal risk.

But there's much we still don't know about the NSA contractor, who has worked most recently for Booz Allen Hamilton but also, according to The Guardian, for Dell and the spy agency itself.

How much more information is coming from Snowden's leaks? Why did he bypass all the other channels available to a whistleblower from going to the Inspector General to Congress? (To be fair, William Binney, a 40-year veteran of the NSA said he got no help from the congressional intelligence committees when he went to them with complaints about surveillance programs sweeping up American citizens.) Above all: Why on earth is he in Hong Kong?

Snowden seems to have mistaken Hong Kong's vibrancy for safety, its plucky determination to preserve freedom under the "One China, Two Systems" with the reality of Beijing's strong hand--something he surely could have discerned using an unclassified program known as Google. The timing of his releases and the U.S.-Chinese summit could be mere coincidence. But try imagining Daniel Ellsberg popping up in Belgrade at the time of the Pentagon Papers, days after a Nixon-Brezhnev Summit, when Yugoslavia was Communist but stood outside the Warsaw Pact and you get the idea. Obviously, the analogy is inexact -- but it gives some sense of how bizarre the choice of Hong Kong is.

We don't know when Snowden decided to go down this path. We don't know if he was encouraged or helped by others to do it. There should be consideration of Snowden's worldview if he really believes, as he said in the video released on the Guardian's website, that he might be harmed by "triads" -- Asian criminal syndicates. The idea that the U.S. would risk delegating the capture of Snowden sounds more than a little far fetched. It's even harder to believe that the U.S. government would be in the business of murdering two-time Pulitzer Prize winning American journalists, such as Gellman, on American soil, as Snowden darkly warned.

The China question has raised suspicions of a Chinese role in the leak. But that seems implausible, for a number of reasons. "It seems wildly unlikely to me, only because it would be an incredibly inventive Chinese handler who would dream something like this up," said Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network. "Presumably if China designed it, it would not have designed in it such a fashion as to have the guy show up in Hong Kong.... Now they're going to have to extradite him to the U.S. -- for an intelligence operative to have set it up that way is not good tradecraft."

As for the NSA programs themselves, they'll get the scrutiny they deserve. But it's worth remembering that the programs aren't rogue. Key congressional leaders and intelligence committee members are familiar with them and members have had a chance to learn about them, even if they did not avail themselves of the opportunity. (As Sen. Barbara Mikulski put it last week, "Fully briefed doesn't mean we know what's going on.") The president knows all about it. It may be that this consensus is wrong, even immoral. But it's not being executed without the knowledge of public officials elected by the people. It is not, at least for now, in violation of American laws.

Another point: Snowden not only leaked the PRISM program but also the unrelated directive outlining how the U.S. plans to launch cyberattacks, even preemptively. One can make a case that leaking PRISM was whistleblowing. But announcing plans for cyberattacks doesn't add any insight into domestic eavesdropping. It's understood from Tehran to Pyongyang that the U.S. plans for everything. That's what militaries do. Releasing such plans isn't elucidating.

Likewise, Snowden's casual allusion to "the CIA station just up the road here in Hong Kong" is probably no great revelation to Chinese intelligence services -- but it's of no service to the cause of trying to limit or eliminate domestic surveillance. Of course the U.S. has a CIA station in Hong Kong. Why narrow down its location publicly?

Leakers are rarely pure of heart. The best known of them, Mark Felt of "Deep Throat" fame, had many motives, including how the FBI was cut out of covert operations and his own personal jealousies over being passed over by Nixon to become the bureau's director. But Hoover's ally did the country a service and what he said was true and changed history. In time we may feel that way about Snowden, as Ellsberg already does. Snowden backers don't think we should trust the government. Fair enough. But why reflexively trust Snowden?