A few pages into Glenn Greenwald's newly released book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, there is a fascinating passage that transforms my understanding of why the contractor leaked NSA secrets.
The familiar rationale still applies. Edward Snowden wanted to inform Americans about the actions of our government and to spark a debate about mass surveillance. "My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name," he reportedly wrote in a note to his collaborators, "and that which is done against them."
Actually, though, he had a second motive. Thomas Jefferson once wrote: "In questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." Snowden wrote:
While I pray that public awareness and debate will lead to reform, bear in mind that the policies of men change in time, and even the Constitution is subverted when the appetites of power demand it. In words from history: Let us speak no more of faith in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of cryptography.
Even if most people had ignored Snowden, he might not have judged his own actions a total waste. After all, they might have inspired a single cryptographer to innovate. That could be hugely significant.