- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In my mind, Snowden did a great public service to our country. If he hadn’t blown the whistle, the gargantuan IC bureaucracy would have inexorably grown even bigger and more powerful — and neither Congress, the media, the judiciary, or our political leaders would have known enough to effectively provide oversight and direction. And of course, the public would have known nothing at all. Clearly the NSA in this case was on track to becoming a runaway agency. The question we should ask is: before Snowden, what mechanism or process was there to objectively calibrate the balance between the need for surveillance and the privacy rights of citizens? And after Snowden, were there substantive reforms and improvements made as a result of the disclosures? And let’s not be too naive about the IC’s claims that the disclosures were so damaging. The scope of NSA’s activities surely was already known to or anticipated by any foreign intelligence agency worth its salt, and they would have taken the necessary precautionary measures. The greatest damage probably was the embarrassment to the US.
Of course, I think Snowden needs to pay a penalty for breaking the law, just as the civil rights demonstrators in the 1960’s expected jail as the price of civil disobedience. But the law is not supposed to be a blunt instrument. That’s why judges can impose a sentence, and then suspend all or part of it. Or a person can be convicted, and then be paroled or pardoned. Or (and this one does bother me) the draft dodgers who fled to Canada or Sweden to avoid the lawful call of their country could be pardoned and allowed to return to the country that they rejected. So the Justice Department should negotiate a plea bargain with Snowden, and let him pay the reasonable (not a .22 bullet in the brain) penalty imposed. And let the country move on to really get a handle on the Surveillance State that we have and stop trying to shoot the messenger.