Room for Debate

A Battle That Snowden Is Not Winning

Stewart Baker

Stewart Baker, a lawyer, was the assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.

Updated December 19, 2013, 2:02 PM

Edward Snowden has managed to create a controversy over the N.S.A.’s collection of domestic telephone metadata. Winning the argument is a different matter.

One federal judge has ruled against the program, and 11 from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have ruled for it. The issue is bound for the appellate courts -- and for Congress, which is reluctant to abandon a tool for identifying cross-border plots like 9/11 without a workable substitute. The president’s review group has proposed a substitute, but not an especially workable one. In short, the debate is on.

Nothing that the panel report on the N.S.A. says vindicates Edward Snowden’s decision to violate the law and put masses of sensitive intelligence at risk.

None of that vindicates Snowden’s decision to violate the law and his oath, or to put masses of sensitive intelligence at risk. Even if you like the debate, it’s hard to like the way Snowden and his journalist allies tried to game it -- withholding for nearly two weeks the court order limiting N.S.A.’s access to the metadata.

Snowden could have spurred the metadata debate by releasing just a handful of documents. But he is disclosing program after program to pursue a broader agenda -- to separate “good” (targeted) spying from “bad” intelligence techniques that require collection of large stores of data. On Snowden’s theory, Chinese hackers stealing American companies’ technology are the “good” spies, and so are Russian agents breaking into the homes of dissidents. But when the American government uses telephone records to construct a terror cell’s social graph, that’s bad spying.

No wonder Snowden sought refuge in Hong Kong and Russia.

As the leaks continue, the American public is catching on. According to an ABC-Washington Post poll, a growing majority believe that Snowden is harming the country. Soon they’ll realize that the damage is deliberate. Inside the United States, Snowden has already lost the broader debate he claims to want, and the leaks are slowly losing their international impact as well.

Snowden’s crimes have indeed caused us harm, but the worst is past.

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Topics: National Security Agency, Terrorism, national security, surveillance

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