There is no doubt that Mr. Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who has leaked voluminous documents about U.S. programs to monitor communications, has damaged the United States, but not in the ways that he had anticipated.
News of massive data mining programs that scour virtually all communications would only surprise individuals who had paid no attention to reports a decade ago of similar capabilities. And at no point has Mr. Snowden demonstrated that such programs, while shocking in scale, have broken any laws.
Instead, his revelations have tarnished America’s reputation and undermined its credibility when it decries cyber-espionage by other countries.
After working at the CIA and as a private contractor for the NSA, Mr. Snowden secured employment as a privately contracted computer consultant at an NSA facility in Hawaii. After three months, he fled to Hong Kong and provided newspapers and bloggers with details of eavesdropping programs that examined virtually all electronic communications in the U.S.
In newspaper interviews, Mr. Snowden has said that he took the last job precisely to get access to the information that he then leaked to the press. After a short stay in Hong Kong — Mr. Snowden said he went there because he thought it had a political and legal framework that would allow him to continue working without being detained — he traveled to Moscow, where he remains in limbo, in the transit lounge, with no immediate destination in sight.
He has said that he wants to go to Iceland, but he has also reportedly been offered asylum in Ecuador, the same state that provides WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange protection in its London embassy.
Mr. Snowden revealed information about several programs. One stores and examines metadata — information about phone calls, but not the content of the calls themselves — for all telephone calls wholly within the U.S., including local telephone calls, and all calls made between the U.S. and abroad.
Another, called PRISM, allows the NSA to access e-mail, Web searches and other Internet traffic in real time. A third program tapped and hacked e-mail and other communications in China.
At no point, however, has Mr. Snowden provided evidence that any of those programs has broken U.S. laws. U.S. lawmakers were informed of them and regularly briefed on their content. At least on one occasion, they took action to tighten scrutiny and ensure that actions comported with the U.S. Constitution.
Critics counter that oversight is supine. Congress has been only given minuscule information and the judicial checks that exist — a special court that reviews requests for additional information — has never rejected an application.
Yet senior congressional officials dismiss charges that they are being manipulated, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle continue to voice full support for the programs.
Perhaps even more significant is public reaction to the revelations. Majorities in the U.S. do not appear bothered by the programs. They seem to have accepted both the need for widespread surveillance and the argument that they have nothing to fear if they have not broken the law.
There is real debate over whether Mr. Snowden is more accurately characterized as a whistleblower, concerned about outrageous violations of civil rights, or a traitor who has exposed programs critical to U.S. national security.
The latter charge is backed by claims that the programs he revealed prevented 50 terror plots against the U.S., an assertion that has not gone unchallenged.
Most experts believe that serious terrorists would have suspected that programs of this sort existed and would have engaged in tradecraft that minimized their effectiveness. Mr. Snowden’s claim that he took the NSA contractor job specifically to gain access to the information that he revealed is practically a textbook definition of espionage.
Those who compare him with another famous whistleblower, Mr. Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, also miss several key points. Unlike Mr. Ellsberg, Mr. Snowden did not first try to get congressional attention and work through the constitutionally created system of checks and balances. Instead, he went directly to the press. Moreover, Mr. Ellsberg stayed to face the consequences of his actions. Mr. Snowden went on the run.
However, there is no missing the damage that Mr. Snowden has done to the image of the U.S. in the international community. His revelations, especially those concerning the hacking of Chinese communications — which were made to win sympathy from residents of China and Hong Kong — undermine U.S. credibility as Washington complains about cyber-espionage and hacking by China.
There should be no doubt that the U.S., like every other country with the capacity, spies to protect its national security. The U.S. complaints, however, concern the unprecedented scale of Chinese efforts and, in particular, their pursuit of economic secrets. That is spying of a different sort that has not traditionally been countenanced.
That distinction has been lost in the fury surrounding Mr. Snowden’s reports and will remain obscured as China and Russia now delight in charges of U.S. hypocrisy concerning cyber espionage.