Incredibly, Edward Snowden has found freedom from persecution in Russia, of all places. That puts him out of the reach of U.S. prosecutors for at least a year, but it simply postpones his eventual day of reckoning.
The Snowden saga isn’t over by any means, but now that he’s out of the Moscow airport, the spotlight can focus on an issue of greater importance: How much intrusion into their private lives Americans are willing to tolerate in exchange for security. A national debate about security and privacy in the age of terrorism is long overdue.
Mr. Snowden’s desperate efforts to evade justice have dominated the headlines ever since he went public. Our nation is divided over whether he’s a hero or a scoundrel, whether he should be hailed or jailed.
But more relevant than what ultimately happens to him is what happens to the once super-secret government programs like the gathering of “metadata” by the National Security Agency — basically the numbers of all telephone calls from all major U.S. telephone providers. This and other secret activities have grown immensely since 9/11 without the benefit of public scrutiny.
Until Mr. Snowden’s revelations, the public liked it that way. Americans didn’t want to know. Most people, polls show, put a higher premium on security than on civil liberties and privacy. But a recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that only 50 percent of Americans approve of the NSA program, while 44 percent disapprove.
The gap is narrowing, and despite the overall approval, 70 percent said they believe the government uses the data for purposes other than stopping terrorism.
Americans understand the need for government secrecy. The current round of U.S. embassy closings around the Middle East due to fears of an imminent terrorist attack is only the latest evidence that the threat against America is real and constant.
As Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee has noted, actionable intelligence is the best way to prevent another attack against the country, and NSA programs are valuable intelligence tools.
But this does not free Congress from its obligation to find out what the NSA and the rest of the U.S. security apparatus is up to. The twofold goal should be to let the public know as much as it can about these secret programs and to allow Americans to retain as much privacy as possible consistent with U.S. national security objectives.
Only Congress can keep the intelligence community honest. It’s not enough to accept reassurances from the head of NSA that, honest, folks, we’re committed to maintaining your privacy and we really don’t snoop unless we have to.
Sen Feinstein has suggested a number of ways to change the law without endangering security:
Publicize the number of times any company is required to provide private communications information to the government. Require that the number of warrants obtained by the FBI to collect the content of any call be made public each year. Reduce the five-year retention period of phone records to two or three years.
Lawmakers should also focus on the super-secret foreign intelligence court known as FISA. Congress should have access to its opinions, and its judges should bring ideological balance to the court, which is not the case today.
As for Mr. Snowden, his future is bleak. He may soon learn that there’s not much difference between being in jail and being an exile in a country like Russia that routinely violates human rights.