Edward Snowden’s most famous leak has just been vindicated. Since June 2013, when he revealed that the telephone calls of Americans are being logged en masse, his critics have charged that he took it upon himself to expose a lawful secret. They insisted that Congress authorized the phone dragnet when it passed the U.S.A. Patriot Act, citing Section 215, a part of the law that pertains to business records.
That claim was always suspect. The text of the law does not seem to authorize mass surveillance. A primary author and longtime champion of the law avows that Congress never intended to authorize the phone dragnet. And nothing like it was ever discussed during an extensive, controversy-filled debate about its provisions.
Now the wrongheadedness of the national-security state’s position has been confirmed.
A panel of judges on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that the program Snowden exposed was never legal. The Patriot Act does not authorize it, contrary to the claims of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Michael Hayden, Keith Alexander, and James Clapper. “Statutes to which the government points have never been interpreted to authorize anything approaching the breadth of the sweeping surveillance at issue here,” Judge Gerard E. Lynch declared. “The sheer volume of information sought is staggering.”
Other conclusions reached by the three-judge panel include the following:
- “The interpretation that the government asks us to adopt defies any limiting principle.”
- “We would expect such a momentous decision to be preceded by substantial debate, and expressed in unmistakable language.There is no evidence of such a debate ...”
- “Congress cannot reasonably be said to have ratified a program of which many members of Congress—and all members of the public—were not aware … only a limited subset of members of Congress had a comprehensive understanding of the program...”
- “Finding the government’s interpretation of the statute to have been ‘legislatively ratified’ under these circumstances would ignore reality.”
Consider what this means.
Telling the public about the phone dragnet didn’t expose a legitimate state secret. It exposed a violation of the constitutional order. For many years, the executive branch carried out a hugely consequential policy change that the legislature never approved. Tens of millions of innocent U.S. citizens were thus subject to invasions of privacy that no law authorized. And the NSA’s unlawful behavior would’ve continued, unknown to the public and unreviewed by Article III courts, but for Snowden’s leak, which caused the ACLU to challenge the illegal NSA program.
Snowden undeniably violated his promise to keep the NSA’s secrets.
But doing so was the only way to fulfill his higher obligation to protect and defend the Constitution, which was being violated by an executive branch exceeding its rightful authority and usurping the lawmaking function that belongs to the legislature. This analysis pertains only to the leaked documents that exposed the phone dragnet, not the whole trove of Snowden leaks, but with respect to that one set of documents there ought to be unanimous support for pardoning his disclosure.
Any punishment for revealing the phone dragnet would be unjust.
Now that a federal appeals court has found that Section 215 of the Patriot Act did not in fact authorize the policy, punishing a man for exposing the program would set this precedent: Whistleblowers will be punished for revealing illegal surveillance. That’s the position anyone who still wants Snowden prosecuted for that leak must take, if the ruling stands. (Other federal courts have issued rulings pointing in contrary directions, and this latest ruling will likely be appealed.)
Consider how this federal court ruling informs the debate over state secrets generally. Civil libertarians have long warned that secret national-security policies undermine both representative democracy and our system of checks and balances.
And that is exactly what happened with respect to the phone dragnet!
Officials classified the program as a state secret, keeping it out of Article III courts. By doing so, they prevented the judiciary from reviewing the statutory legitimacy of NSA surveillance, subverting a core check in our system of government.
Its secret status stymied congressional debate, too.
And it undermined self-government, forcing Americans to judge their elected representatives in a state of ignorance about hugely consequential actions they’d taken.
The consequence: An illegal program persisted for years. This is a perfect illustration of why secret government programs are an abomination in our democracy. (For more detailed legal analysis of the appeals court decision see Orin Kerr.)
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