Given the threats to democracy, and the technological milieu from which they may emerge, the United States needs to engage in data collection on a wide scale, both at home and abroad. The issue is whether it has checks and balances to ensure that these means remain politically and legally subordinate to legitimate ends.
On that score, there’s good news and not-so-good news in Snowden’s revelations. So far, he’s revealed no specific instance in which the NSA programs harmed any individual.
However, the expansive FISA court reading of the Patriot Act, which authorized NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata, may have exceeded Congress’ intent. The clash between NSA data collection overseas and the domestic law of countries such as Germany is a serious diplomatic issue, for which the solution probably lies in greater consultation and transparency among allied democracies.
As Merkel suggested, though, it would help if Germans “never forget . . . that America is and has been our truest ally throughout the decades.” Some of the same across-the-pond pundits who are griping about President Obama’s proto-totalitarianism today used to hail him as the world’s political redeemer.
In short, even the most worrisome issues Snowden has raised amount to manageable trade-offs between liberty and security, for both the United States and its allies.
He may deserve credit for energizing the debate, but not for enabling the Stasi-analogizers, or for referring to the United States with phrases like “turnkey tyranny” and “architecture of oppression.” The excessiveness of that language should be more apparent to him with each day he spends in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.