I make no secret of the fact that I am deeply grateful to Edward Snowden for disclosing the National Security Agency's rampant abuses of power. I have attended rallies in support of asylum for him and other whistleblowers and for drastic reforms of the NSA's powers.
Of course, there are those who see Snowden as a traitor. They argue, somewhat reasonably, that the government has a duty to keep some things secret for the sake of national security. Inevitably, this camp resorts to the reductio ad absurdum along similar lines to Godwin's Law and say what's next!? Printing nuclear launch codes in the newspaper?
I propose a simple litmus test to whether secret information should be leaked:
- Does the leaked information directly cause harm to a human being other than embarrassing public officials?
- Does the information better inform citizens and give them tools to participate in a democracy? Does it elevate the public debate?
Perhaps that's simple to a fault. But here are some examples:
- Nuclear launch codes: Useless knowledge for anyone who doesn't plan on committing crimes against humanity. So yes, our military needs this, but we don't.
- Names of foreigners who collaborate with the U.S. military in helping them fight against Islamist terrorists: No need for us to know that.
- Everything we learned so far thanks to Edward Snowden: The only thing harmed here is the credibility of the intelligence community whose members have no compunction against lying to Congress. And we wouldn't be having this debate without the disclosures. You can't agree or disagree with something you aren't aware of.
There you have it. We don't need to know nuclear launch codes, but as a taxpaying, voting citizen, we need to know what our leaders are up to. Obviously, the existence of a black budget and spying on millions of people with no relationship with terrorism of any kind is illegal. Spy on people who are looking to do something awful. Angela Merkel and I should be left alone.
Thanks to Snowden (for whom the news media desperately needs new photos), we are more aware of what our government is doing. The harm that has come to America's foreign policy and the competitive edge of U.S. tech firms could have been avoided by just not abusing them in the first place.