The Post’s View

In NSA programs, democracy works in secret

IT’S HARD to doubt Edward Snowden’s sincerity.

The 29-year-old government contractor said Sunday that he was the one who leaked documents to The Post and the Guardian detailing U.S. intelligence-gathering techniques. In interviews, Mr. Snowden has spoken passionately about what he sees as an invasive government data-collection apparatus. Though he fled to Hong Kong, he asserted that he could have tried to defect to a hostile government with a list of every National Security Agency (NSA) officer in the world if he meant to harm the United States or merely wanted to sell out. Instead, he appears determined to prompt a discussion about the privacy U.S. citizens are sacrificing in the name of security.

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On the last score, he has certainly succeeded. Not since 2008 has the country devoted so much attention to the laws and procedures that govern electronic intelligence collection. It’s a worthy debate to have. And one of Mr. Snowden’s documents has revealed a massive program apparently aimed at collecting “metadata,” though not the contents, of every phone call placed or received in the United States. As Robert Chesney and Benjamin Wittes have pointed out, this represents a previously unknown and unanticipated interpretation of the Patriot Act — the disclosure of which probably has not harmed national security and should have happened without Mr. Snowden forcing the matter.

The other program Mr. Snowden exposed, called PRISM, concerned the collection of Internet data from firms such as Google and Facebook. The PowerPoint slides he released put the meat of real-world detail on the dry bones of the anti-terrorism statutes Congress has passed. But, as we pointed out Sunday, the amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that Congress approved in 2008 authorized, though in broad strokes, programs such as PRISM. The idea was to give the government a way to collect useful electronic information about foreign activities, under the supervision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and Congress and with procedures to minimize Americans’ exposure to the NSA’s net. Though Mr. Snowden’s documents did not detail minimization procedures, there is no indication that the court or principal members of Congress were cut out of the loop as the government applied this authority. Nor is there any evidence that the authorities were abused or that the privacy of any American was illegally or improperly invaded. If there is a scandal here, it is that a government contractor of Mr. Snowden’s stature had access to highly classified material.

Just as it is important not to exaggerate the national security risks of transparency, it is also important not to give into the anti-government paranoia of grandstanding politicians such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who on Sunday invoked the tyranny of King George III to criticize programs that are the result of a checked, deliberative process across three branches of government. Part of what makes this different is that if enough Americans expect more privacy after the debate Mr. Snowden incited, their representatives in Washington can act on their behalf.

 
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