Whether he was traitorous or patriotic, Edward J. Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency who leaked details of a vast government surveillance program, did his country a favor: He started a debate that needed to be had.
It's not an easy debate, but a complicated one. The trouble with categorizing the leaker's actions and the role of government as spy and keeper of secrets is that both sides have a point.
In the first place, one of the core responsibilities of the government is national security. The very justification for the Constitution as a securer of the "blessings of liberty" is spelled out in its preamble; its purpose is to "insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare." With the terrible tranquility-shattering events of 9/11 still raw, the government has little choice but to be eternally vigilant and use technology to this end.
But in modern times these efforts are in tension with the Fourth Amendment, written in olden times before skyscrapers were built and airplanes to fly into them were invented. So the critics of the surveillance program made public by the lowly contractor are right to be concerned that a potential threat, at the very least, exists to the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures."
Yet the amendment does not ban all searches; the key concept is reasonableness. In that regard, as expansive as the spying program is, the pertinent fact is that the NSA isn't reading everyone's emails -- that would be impossible anyway. The NSA is monitoring emails from foreign sources thought to be associated with terrorism. Americans at home or abroad can't be targeted without a warrant.
Nor is the NSA listening to phone calls, but collecting call records. The point of the vast scooping of information is not about personal intrusion but about using computer analysis to uncover suspicious patterns of contact. If further action is needed, a secret court must approve it.
These actions are authorized by Congress in both the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the USA Patriot Act -- both backed by a large segment of the American people at the time. Previous U.S. Supreme Court decisions concerning the privacy of the mail and phone calls support the actions authorized in law. This all meets the reasonableness test.
Yet just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so could America forfeit its liberty to the elusive god security one seemingly reasonable step at a time. Senior government officials told a House committee Tuesday that the surveillance programs have thwarted more than 50 terrorist plots in the United States and overseas, including a plan to bomb the New York Stock Exchange. But how do we know? In the age of distrust, we are expected to take this information on trust.
That's the problem -- and remedying that problem is the direction this debate should take.
Many Americans will be like us and concede that the government has a duty to take steps to protect the nation. But the government must also walk a fine line, and fine lines are better walked with more illumination. Secrets can still be secret and yet be monitored better by Congress and the judicial system, with regular reports made to the people, for whose benefit the Fourth Amendment was written.