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Some Americans think Edward Snowden is a hero. As they see it, he has sacrificed his career, and perhaps put his life in peril, by leaking classified documents. He felt the public should know the extent of the national security state.
But many members of Congress say Mr. Snowden is a lawbreaking traitor. Former president George W. Bush said he “damaged the security of the country.” Could both sides be right?
The extent of this nation’s spying capability, and policy, is astonishing. There is almost nothing the government cannot find out. More important, the Obama Administration, like the Bush administration before it, seems to think there is virtually nothing it does not have a right to know, and no person or institution it does not have a right to spy on.
Presidents Obama and Bush have spoken of a “balance” between civil liberties and national security. But it is hard to see any balance in either of their approaches. Mr. Obama’s Administration does not torture prisoners. But it asserts the same universal right to conduct surveillance of anyone who might be an enemy, and to jail anyone it claims is an enemy.
Mr. Snowden’s leaks ought to lead to an examination of the government’s spying and surveillance policies, just as the Pentagon Papers got Americans to look at the theory and execution of the Vietnam war. So far, none of the leaks appears to have compromised American agents in the field. But they have revealed the reach of this government’s security apparatus.
Unfortunately, we are distracted by Mr. Snowden, an eccentric and erratic character who possesses moral fervor but not moral clarity. This week, he lashed out at Mr. Obama and the U.S. government, earning a rebuke from Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president.
Mr. Putin said that if Mr. Snowden wants to be a human-rights activist, there is no home for him in Russia. Having Mr. Putin defend our government’s domestic spying activities should make all Americans wary.
Mr. Snowden broke the law; classified material cannot legally be released to the public. He also likely broke an oath he signed when he worked for the government. That makes him subject to prosecution for espionage and treason, both of which are capital crimes.
Mr. Snowden seems not to realize that, legally and morally, he must pay a price. If his act was one of civil disobedience — breaking an unjust law to show that it is unjust — it is even more important that he accept punishment and make the case for what he did. It is not clear he is willing to do the former, or able to do the latter.
The scandal is also one of policy: How is it that thousands of private contractors such as Mr. Snowden have high security clearances? That’s a self-contradictory policy and an absurd practice.
A high security clearance should be bestowed rarely. If anyone can get one, our secrets are no longer secret.
So we have a national security state that is insecure — a Big Brother government that is omnipresent but inept. The worst of both worlds.