Edward Snowden and the NSA Are Two Separate Questions

by Charles C. W. Cooke

In the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf responds to criticism of Edward Snowden. Snowden may have handed over thousands of pieces of personal information to a journalist, Friedersdorf writes, but this proves only that the NSA’s collecting that information in the first instance is problematic. The nub of his argument is this:

The NSA collects and stores the full content of extremely sensitive photographs, emails, chat transcripts, and other documents belong to Americans, itself a violation of the Constitution—but even if you disagree that it’s illegal, there’s no disputing the fact that the NSA has been proven incapable of safeguarding that data. There is not the chance the data could leak at sometime in the future. It has already been taken and given to reporters. The necessary reform is clear. Unable to safeguard this sensitive data, the NSA shouldn’t be allowed to collect and store it.

And, he suggests:

So long as [defenders of the NSA] insist that Snowden is a narcissistic criminal and possible traitor, they have no choice but to admit that the NSA collected and stored intimate photos, emails, and chats belonging to totally innocent Americans and safeguarded them so poorly that a ne’er-do-well could copy them onto thumb drives. 

This is fair. Certainly, one can’t criticize Snowden here without criticizing the NSA. But that doesn’t mean that one can’t criticize Snowden as well, does it? I’m with Friedersdorf on the general question of the NSA (domestically, at least), and, among the many reasons that I am is that the wholesale collection of citizens’ data allows rogue operatives access to material that they should never be permitted to see — among them, the likes of Edward Snowden. Now, Snowden may have had a good reason to collect and release that data. But he did not do so under duress. This was a choice, and there were presumably a considerable number of ways in which he could have made his point without having to release so many documents into the ether. Charles Johnson, of Little Green Footballs, puts it well, I think:

But even more to the point, and the reason for my headline above: hasn’t Edward Snowden himself committed a truly massive violation of civil liberties, by handing over these legally collected and properly redacted private communications to journalists — and to Glenn Greenwald?

Unlike Johnson, I am pleased that we know what the NSA has been up to. But I think it’s possible to recognize that there are two questions in play. Those are: 1) Should the federal government be taking all of this data?, and 2) Was Edward Snowden judicious in the way that he used that data to make his point? One can say “no” to the first inquiry without having to say “yes” to the latter.

Friedersdorf writes:

Snowden defenders see these leaked files as necessary to proving that the NSA does, in fact, massively violate the private lives of American citizens by collecting and storing content—not “just” metadata—when they communicate digitally. They’ll point out that Snowden turned these files over to journalists who promised to protect the privacy of affected individuals and followed through on that oath. 

Fine. But did it really require the information of 10,000 account holders and 160,000 e-mails to do that? I’m not so sure.