It is a good thing for the American people to know the extent of government’s surveillance of us, and the harms of disclosure, it seems to me, reside somewhere between trivial and none. It’s also crucial to arrest and try Edward Snowden, the former security contractor who released material about the government collecting phone records and more and is now doing his best to dodge arrest.
Am I contradicting myself? I don’t think so.
I think most half-alert Americans know scads of information is classified to avoid political embarrassment or because the government is sloppy about what it hides or just doesn’t trust the public to understand anything anyway. That’s not OK, but here is what we also know: Much material is legitimately classified for important reasons.
Secrecy can be vital in all kinds of matters, not the least of them national security. And if you say it is permissible for people to break their oaths and the law on their own judgment of what should and should not be publicly shared, you may be risking mass killings of the innocent, among numerous other bad outcomes, while building disrespect for law at the same time.
There are obvious complications here, not the least of them the fact that leaking classified secrets is a Washington game frequently played, and not just by previously unknown contractors. During the 2012 presidential campaign year, for instance, a New York Times story quoted “advisers” of President Barack Obama in a story sharing details of how he personally sanctioned drone strikes on suspected terrorists.
I have little doubt the revelations were meant to make him look good, and I have a hard time believing these and a number of other high-level leaks on different topics were legal. Maybe there are technical or other factors that erase any criminality, but it was mighty strange stuff from an administration that has prosecuted more leaks of classified data than all other administrations combined. The apparent philosophy was that the political end justified means described by even some congressional Democrats as “harm to national security interests” that was “alarming and unacceptable.”