And then there’s Snowden’s denials that he did any damage. Show me the evidence, he protests, that anyone was really hurt by anything he did—and Williams does not call him on the point. But it’s a mug’s game to acquit oneself of doing harm by simply defining all of the harms one does as goods. If one calls democratic debate and sunshine the blowing of sensitive intelligence programs in which one’s country has invested enormous resources and on which it relies for all sorts of intelligence collection, the exposure is of course harmless. If one regards as a salutary exercise the exposure of one’s country’s offensive intelligence operations and capabilities to the intelligence services of adversary nations, then of course that exposure does no harm. And if one regards the many billions of dollars American industry has lost as merely a fair tax on its sins for having cooperated with NSA, then sure, no harm there either.
Snowden is too smart to actually believe that he did no harm to the U.S. What he means, rather, is that he regards harms to U.S. intelligence interests as good things much of the time and that he reserves for himself the right to define which harms are goods and which harms are real harms.
And this brings us to Snowden’s ultimate arrogance, the thing that makes his calm certainty finally more infuriating than anything else: He believes he is above the law. He believes he should get to decide what stays secret and what does not. He believes that he should get to decide what laws he can and cannot be tried under. He believes he gets to decide what rules should govern spying. And he not only believes he should get credit for civil disobedience without being willing to face the legal consequences of his actions, he believes he should get credit for courage as though he had done so as well.