It seems like just last week we discussed the difference between leakers and reporters, and whistleblowers and criminals. In fact, it was just last week, as the Bradley Manning court-martial got under way, when I wrote that Manning didn’t have a First Amendment freedom-of-the-press defense. I wrote in my column at The Week that whistleblowers with clearances have specific ways in which to raise issues of illegality and unethical behavior:
Those with clearances are briefed on how to raise issues on legality and ethics within the parameters of security, and none of those processes involve sending the data to a newspaper. If all else fails, one can contact a member of Congress to discuss whatever issue arises, especially those on committees with oversight of the activities involved. That’s doubly true for those within the military, where chain-of-command prevails in most cases. Manning made the whistleblower defense even more difficult with his indiscriminate release of material — hundreds of thousands of pages of classified cables and other data — that belies a compelling need to expose any specific wrongdoing. …
People have an almost irrepressible desire to tell secrets, especially those that don’t belong to them, which is why government has to establish strong deterrents to leaks that could get people killed and damage our ability to defend ourselves. The real danger lies in making criminals out of reporters and espionage out of normal source-currying behaviors, establishing precedents that will allow those in power to deter journalists from pursuing legitimate stories about the way in which our government operates. That is both a distinction and a difference, and one that matters to both national security and freedom of the press.
In the case of Edward Snowden, he had the same options. Snowden had donated to the Ron Paul campaign — twice — as the International Business Times notes:
Campaign contribution records appear to show that Edward Snowden, the confessed National Security Agency whistle-blower who spoke out against government surveillance in the Guardian on Sunday, donated $500 to Ron Paul’s 2012 presidentialbid.
Records at CampaignMoney.com show two contributions of $250 each from an Edward Snowden with addresses in Hawaii and Maryland. According to the Guardian’s interview with the 29-year-old whistle-blower, Snowden lived with his family in Maryland before moving to Hawaii.
One of the records lists Snowden’s employer as Dell Inc. (NASDAQ:DELL), which was also referenced in the Guardian interview.
Quite obviously, Snowden was aware of Paul’s mistrust of the intelligence-industrial complex. If Snowden wanted to blow the whistle, why not arrange to brief Rep. Paul about the PRISM program in 2012, when Paul was still a member of Congress? Better yet, why not brief his son Rand Paul, since 2011 a US Senator and equally mistrustful of the same? Two months ago, Paul launched a talking filibuster to force the White House to clarify its position on using drones against Americans in the US. One might conclude that this would have been a propitious moment for a disillusioned intel worker to brief Senator Paul on the NSA’s secret spying programs.
Instead, Snowden went to the Washington Post and Guardian. Some will argue that this makes him a hero, but Michael Moynihan cautions against that rising meme:
There is an instinct, indulged by journalists and activists, to reflexively anoint the leaker—or the whistleblower, depending on your point of view—saintly status. And the braying mobs of Snowden supporters, who nicely overlap with the passionate Julian Assange fans and Ron Paul devotees (Snowden himself donated $500 to Paul’s campaign in 2012), will doubtless dismiss any incertitude as the grumblings of Obama administration flunkies or Bush nostalgics.
Well, no. Even a generous reading of the programs exposed by Snowden should deeply trouble those of us who are skeptical of the ever-growing American security state. And even if the administration’s explanations and justifications of the NSA’s snooping programs are to be trusted—the program foiled terror attacks, was focused only on foreign nationals, and no calls were listened to, etc.—it nevertheless raises ethical and moral issues that demand further public debate, asSnowden said an interview with The Guardian.
But even after Snowden’s disclosures, do we even understand what, exactly, the NSA is engaged in? As journalist J.M. Berger rightly points out, “the information we lack vastly outweighs the information we have. We should be cautious in interpreting data summaries we don’t fully understand.” And when we do understand that information, as the story thickens and clarifies, it’s possible that the worst-case readings by journalists and independent analysts were too cautious. But even in the past few days, some aspects of the program originally reported as terrifying and incontrovertible fact have changed. …
The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, the indefatigable writer who broke the NSA story, has hinted that more documents are to come, and it’s possible that further evidence could clarify the story and add much-needed detail to the growing outrage. But until we know more, let’s take a few breaths and resist the insta-consecration of Edward Snowden.
Actually, we should resist that impulse regardless of how the story plays out. The NSA may well be acting in a malicious manner, or it might be on the side of the angels, or anywhere in between. Either way, the leak of the materials to the press is a major crime, and the US has a just cause to arrest and try Snowden for any number of felonies related to them.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the “debate” Obama now conveniently wants on national security and the surveillance state. Of course we should. But that debate should have been informed through channels that protected those secrets unless no other possibility existed. And it seems rather clear that Rand Paul would not have buried this story had it come to him first — or Ron Wyden, or Mark Udall, two other Senators who have publicly warned in the past about an out-of-control NSA. Not only would the program been exposed, but it might have gotten exposed in a manner that provided the necessary context for an informed debate, which we’re still not having to this day.
Snowden’s $500 ended up doing nothing in the long run. He would have done us all a favor — including himself — if he’d used the money for subscriptions to the Guardian and Washington Post and sent the leak to Paul, Udall, and/or Wyden.