After an extensive if wholly non-transparent debate
conducted inside my own head, I am proud to announce that this column's 2013
Man of the Year is...Edward Snowden. The man who disclosed the details of the
National Security Agency's programs of secret surveillance narrowly won out
over Hassan Rouhani; our hope is that the opportunity to take the 2014 prize
will spur the Iranian president to make significant concessions in upcoming
Snowden's candidacy was in doubt, but received a major boost
at a panel discussion during a Foreign
Policy conference held earlier this month, when James Baker, deputy
director of policy planning at the Pentagon, was asked
about the issues which "keep you and the Joint Chiefs up at night." He
listed five: the rise of China, the Arab Spring, the fallout from the financial
crisis, the effect of budget cuts on defense spending, and the NSA leaks -- which,
Baker said, perhaps to counter disbelief, "rise to the same level."
It is extremely disturbing to think that senior military
officials spend as much time worrying about the NSA revelations as they do
about China. Inside the U.S. military and intelligence community, the leaks are
seen as a national security and diplomatic calamity, and Snowden is seen as a traitor.
The Man of the Year, of course, can be a villain, so long as
he is a very consequential one.
But the harm Snowden has done has been blown up to ludicrous
proportions. No evidence has yet emerged of crucial intelligence compromised by
his disclosures, or for that matter of a case in which the NSA's vast
collection of private electronic data halted a terror plot. Has Snowden damaged
relations with allies? Thomas Shannon, President Barack Obama's former
assistant secretary of state for Latin America, responded to Baker's assertion
by denying that the leaks had done any lasting harm to alliances in the region.
Shannon then added a remarkably eloquent impromptu summation
of the meaning of the leaks. They "give us some insight about what the 21st
century is going to be like," Shannon said. "It's really not about espionage.
It's about how new forms of technology, new forms of communication, and new
forms of analyzing that information are going to radically change our
understanding of privacy, radically change our understanding of political
agency and behavior patterns, and what they mean for our societies as they try
to connect to one another."
Snowden may or may not be a hero -- we really don't have
enough insight into the choices he made and the motives that drove him to
render so profound a moral judgment -- but his revelations have forced a debate
that otherwise would not have existed. In recent interview
in the Washington Post, Snowden said, "I didn't want to change society.
I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself."
Such a fundamental debate does, by its nature, change society.
In the most obvious sense, the debate makes our society more
democratic. The U.S. government has concluded that on the immense issue of
surveillance it needed to be accountable only to itself. (Other states are, of
course, equally opaque.) In a democracy, even decisions about the principles
governing secrecy need to be publicly determined. There is reason to hope that
society will use the opportunity of the debate to "change itself." In the very
first case in which the NSA's program to collect telephone "metadata" on
Americans was adjudicated in federal court, Judge Richard Leon issued a
preliminary injunction strongly indicating that he found the practices
unconstitutional. "I cannot," he wrote,
"imagine a more ‘indiscriminate' and ‘arbitrary invasion' than this systematic
and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every
single citizen for purposes of querying it and analyzing it without judicial
The bland reassurances by senior intelligence officials that
Americas have nothing to fear from the massive surveillance
dragnet have now received the contempt they deserve. In a report
issued last week, Obama's panel on the NSA surveillance program, which included
former senior intelligence officials, concluded that the mass collection from
metadata "creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil
liberty." The panel proposed keeping that data in the hands of phone companies
or "a private third party," requiring substantial public disclosure of
information-gathering programs, sharply restricting surveillance on foreign
targets -- and especially foreign heads of state -- and requiring the NSA
director to be confirmed by the Senate. The panel suggested that the next
director should be a civilian, which would be a first. (Of course, the latter
recommendation is highly unlikely, since the president has already indicated
his willingness to disregard another of the report's recommendations: that the
director of the NSA be separate from the director of the military's Cyber
The report bears reading not merely for its bullet points.
The authors observe that the word "security" applies every bit as much to the
security of the individual against intrusion by the state or others as it does
to the "national security" interests protected by the state through, among
other means, intelligence-gathering. The state must not imperil the one in the
name of the other. The two must be balanced; and yet, the authors note, some prohibitions
against intrusion in the name of national security, such as those that suppress
dissent and infringe on personal liberty, are "foundational," and not to be
"balanced" against the collective good of safety. That, the authors note, is
precisely what has often happened at moments of national crisis. Some powers
given to the state in the aftermath of 9/11, they conclude, "unduly sacrifice
fundamental interests in individual liberty, personal privacy, and democratic
These are profound observations; they recall us to
ourselves. Barack Obama, the candidate, promised to do just that when he vowed
to "write a new chapter in our response to 9/11." Obama did not do that; he
deferred, far more than he or we expected, to the dreadful logic of "national
security." Edward Snowden has now, willy-nilly, given him the opportunity to
write that new chapter. We should know in a few weeks whether or not Obama will
accept the invitation.
Snowden is almost certainly the most important
whistle-blower in American history. The vast trove of WikiLeaks documents
exposed by Chelsea Manning shone a glaring light on the underside of diplomacy,
but did little to change our understanding of the world. Daniel Ellsberg's
decision to expose the Pentagon Papers profoundly changed the relationship of
the press -- and of the American people -- to government, but did little to
change the course of the war, which was his goal. Who else compares?
Ellsberg's 1973 trial was dismissed over government
misconduct. Manning is now serving a 35-year sentence. Does
Snowden belong in jail? There's no question that he has violated the terms of
the Espionage Act by disclosing state secrets, though it seems likely that he has
not committed espionage. But if you break the law for reasons of conscience, you
must be prepared to live with the consequences. Yet the immense good that has
come of Snowden's law-breaking presents a powerful case for leniency. In an
ideal world, he would be permitted to plead guilty to a violation of the Act
and then sentenced to a form of community service in which he would use his
skills to help the cause of reform.
The award ceremony is to be held in the transit corridor of
the Sheremetyevo Airport, at an undisclosed date.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images