Edward Snowden's misplaced idealism

Snowden’s case is similar to that of CIA dissident Philip Agee. He published a revelatory memoir in 1975 called “Inside the Company: CIA Diary,” which outed the names and code names of scores of operatives with whom Agee had worked. He wrote in the introduction: “When I joined the CIA I believed in the need for its existence. After 12 years with the agency, I finally understood how much suffering it was causing. . . . I couldn’t sit by and do nothing.” Agee died in 2008 in Cuba, where he had sought refuge. …

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence who oversees the NSA, argued last weekend that Snowden made “reckless” disclosures about its monitoring of foreign Internet communications, and that “potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm” could come from the revelation of a court order authorizing collection of telephone call data from Verizon. Congress and the courts will examine such claims, but how should we as citizens evaluate them?

My guess is that Clapper is correct when he implicitly argues that these electronic surveillance programs are the United States’ best tool in combating terrorism. It’s probably also true that each revelation of U.S. capabilities weakens this advantage by putting adversaries such as al-Qaeda on notice about our snooping capabilities. The revelations likely make it harder, as well, for U.S. corporations and foreign allies to cooperate.