Edward Snowden broke the law by releasing classified information. This isn’t under debate; it’s something everyone with a security clearance knows. It’s written in plain English on the documents you have to sign when you get a security clearance, and it’s part of the culture. The law is there for a good reason, and secrecy has an important role in military defense.
But before the Justice Department prosecutes Snowden, there are some other investigations that ought to happen.
We need to determine whether these National Security Agency programs are themselves legal. The administration has successfully barred anyone from bringing a lawsuit challenging these laws, on the grounds of national secrecy. Now that we know those arguments are without merit, it’s time for those court challenges.
It’s clear that some of the NSA programs exposed by Snowden violate the Constitution and others violate existing laws. Other people have an opposite view. The courts need to decide.
We need to determine whether classifying these programs is legal. Keeping things secret from the people is a very dangerous practice in a democracy, and the government is permitted to do so only under very specific circumstances. Reading the documents leaked so far, I don’t see anything that needs to be kept secret. The argument that exposing these documents helps the terrorists doesn’t even pass the laugh test; there’s nothing here that changes anything any potential terrorist would do or not do. But in any case, now that the documents are public, the courts need to rule on the legality of their secrecy.
And we need to determine how we treat whistle-blowers in this country. We have whistle-blower protection laws that apply in some cases, particularly when exposing fraud, and other illegal behavior. NSA officials have repeatedly lied about the existence, and details, of these programs to Congress.
Only after all of these legal issues have been resolved should any prosecution of Snowden move forward. Because only then will we know the full extent of what he did, and how much of it is justified.
I believe that history will hail Snowden as a hero—his whistle-blowing exposed a surveillance state and a secrecy machine run amok. I’m less optimistic of how the present day will treat him, and hope that the debate right now is less about the man and more about the government he exposed.
This essay was originally published on the New York Times Room for Debate blog, as part of a series of essays on the topic.
EDITED TO ADD (6/13): There’s a big discussion of this on Reddit.
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