As Justice Department officials began the process Monday to charge Edward J. Snowden, a 29-year-old former C.I.A. computer technician, with disclosing classified information, he checked out of a hotel in Hong Kong where he had been holed up for several weeks, according to two American officials. It was not clear where he went.Well, he's not at my house. Beyond that it's tough to say.
I'm having a tough time wrapping my mind around what Snowden has done and what to believe about it. My libertarian instincts are that he's done everyone a favor by calling attention to the current scope of the surveillance state, a project that has been underway since the time of Woodrow Wilson. At the same time, a whistleblower usually stands his ground, which suggests something different about this case.
Writing for the Daily Beast, Michael Moynihan neatly encapsulates the problems we have in interpreting what we've learned:
Dare I suggest that a small dollop of skepticism is required here? There is an instinct, indulged by journalists and activists, to reflexively anoint the leaker—or the whistleblower, depending on your point of view—saintly status. And the braying mobs of Snowden supporters, who nicely overlap with the passionate Julian Assange fans and Ron Paul devotees (Snowden himself donated $500 to Paul’s campaign in 2012), will doubtless dismiss any incertitude as the grumblings of Obama-administration flunkies or Bush nostalgics.That seems right. I don't understand everything that the NSA is doing, or not doing, and neither does anyone reading this feature. At the same time, it's not necessary to know every detail. What matters more are the parameters, the rules of engagement. And what matters even more is whether the NSA recognizes any parameters.
Well, no. Even a generous reading of the programs exposed by Snowden should deeply trouble those of us who are skeptical of the ever-growing American security state. And even if the administration’s explanations and justifications of the NSA’s snooping programs are to be trusted—the program foiled terror attacks, was focused only on foreign nationals, and no calls were listened to, etc.—it nevertheless raises ethical and moral issues that demand further public debate, as Snowden said an interview with The Guardian.
But even after Snowden’s disclosures, do we even understand what, exactly, the NSA is engaged in? As journalist J.M. Berger rightly points out, “the information we lack vastly outweighs the information we have. We should be cautious in interpreting data summaries we don’t fully understand.”
As for Snowden, we're likely to learn more about his motivations in the coming days. Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian writer who has been Snowden's transmitter, promises more revelations in the coming days. That's a good thing. As Justice Brandeis so memorably put it:
"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."And, even more on point:
“Experience teaches us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficent.”