Quora question: Was the Edward Snowden leak about NSA surveillance good or bad?

My response:  I answered a similar question, Do you think what Edward Snowden did was right or wrong? I’ll post that answer below and hope it suffices.

I am conflicted about Edward Snowden, so please forgive my lengthy response. Civil disobedience that sheds light on widespread breaches of constitutional rights is a commendable act—consider the 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg. A 1996 article in the New York Times stated that the Pentagon Papers had demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress.”

However, unilaterally leaking troves of top secret national security documents, as Mr. Snowden has done, is a dangerous act approaching treason. So for me, much of my final judgment about Mr. Snowden’s choice hinges on this.

On the one hand, 67 senators voted to end the National Security Agency’s cellphone bulk data collection. When President Obama signed the law, they were saying, with respect to this singular disclosure, that Edward Snowden was right; NSA had gone too far and violated the rights of the American public. The entangled threads of government intelligence, national security, and individual liberties are now better understood because of Mr. Snowden’s public revelations. For that opportunity, I feel the American public is indebted to him.

On the other hand, our national security should not rest in the hands of one young man who believes, however sincerely, that he and only he knew better. When told about the Obama Administration’s characterization of him as a low-level employee and a high-school dropout during a 2014 interview with NBC News, Mr. Snowden sounded very much like a man with a bruised ego when he insisted he was a trained spy living under an assumed identity and that he was a powerful operator.

When asked why he didn’t use another method to address his worries about NSA surveillance programs, Mr. Snowden insists he did at first. He told NBC that he reported his concerns in writing to NSA over ten times before finally contacting members of the press. NSA, however, claims it was only able to locate one such email. In the email, Mr. Snowden only questions whether Executive Orders may override statutes. The NSA official responding to the email instructs Mr. Snowden that EOs “have the force and effect of law . . . but cannot override a statute.”

Now, the NSA’s track record of deception does not make one feel comfortable about their response. And given the circumstances, one would hardly expect NSA to divulge information that would further damage its image and make Mr. Snowden seem less villainous.

The Obama administration continues to aver that Mr. Snowden had other options, but the truth is his actions were not covered by the Whistleblower Act.

So, while in one sense I applaud Mr. Snowden’s actions, I am otherwise appalled at the extent to which his actions exceeded what was necessary to prove his point.


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