He's being hailed as a “whistleblower.' He's being lionized as a practitioner of civil disobedience in the traditon of Martin Luther King Jr. On the evidence available so far, 29-year-old Edward Snowden looks like neither.
He's the employe of a consulting firm who leaked disclosures about the National Security Agency's data-mining program to the Guardian in England and the Washington Post here.
Whistleblower? It's far from clear he revealed any wrongdoing — or for that matter, anything new. Wired magazine previously ran an extensive story on the data-mining effort, as did USA Today. The NSA effort occurs under duly enacted (if debatable) law and under judicial monitoring (if not as aggressive as some would prefer).
Data-mining sounds more ominous than it is. It doesn't entail listening in on phone conversations. Nor does it entail looking over the shoulder as people surf the Internet.
It involves using algorithms to detect telltale patterns among virtually infinite data. Massive samplings of data — individually meaningless due to the phenomenal and nameless quantity — are first needed to deliniate normal patterns. Then variations from the normal can be sifted out and further analyzed, hopefully zeroing in on suspect communication footprints enabling investigators to then track down and thwart terrorist plots. It's a sort of high-tech Maginot Line but one that just might work, that just might save the lives of people — maybe the lives of whole metropolitan area populations.
Leaker Snowden declares that he has disclosed U.S. “wrongdoing' that's “contrary to the public interest.' Both points are debatable, not givens.
Whether he's a civil dissenter in the mold of King also is debatable. Civil dissenters (King being an exemplar) stand up and face the legal consequences of their civil disobedience to make a larger case in behalf of morality and justice. They don't take refuge behind legal maneuvering. We shall see if Snowden, now reported to be in Hong Kong, comports himself in a way meriting the civil-disobedience mantle. He's looking like am unsure bet to us.
Leftists and libertarians, both driven by their respective doctrinaire zeal, are using the data-mining disclosure to lambaste President Obama. For sure, the code-named “Prism' is hardly a comfy fit with the kumbaya peace agenda and “transparency' Obama over-promised in two presidential campaigns. But many of his national security actions, thankfully, have been more along the lines of adjustments to reality than simply, as his critics insist, nonchalantly broken promises.
The president spoke the somber truth when he recently said: “I think it's important for everybody to understand ... that there are some trade-offs involved. You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconveneience. You know we're going to have to make some choices as a society.'
We surely can reach an intelligent, workable decision to protect liberty and life.