Who Gets to Decide?

Snowden and many others have now said that these leaks are important and justified because the public needs to decide whether this is done in their name. Basically I disagree with that (the justification for the leak). But it does raise a basic point that it is inherently difficult for the public to make fully informed decisions about intelligence work done in its name. Yet, who gets to do this? Snowden says it’s up to the public. But it’s really more like Snowden and Greenwald have made that decision on the public’s behalf.

TPM Reader LF has some similar thoughts. I don’t agree with all of it. And he loses me on some of the points toward the end. But I’m on the same page on this basic point …

There is a lot of conversation at TPM, and around the world, about NSA intelligence programs, etc., which has come to light lately in issues about leaks of information and documents. But the announcement by the 29-year old Edward Snowden that he leaked the classified documents brings up a very important issue–who gets to leak this type of information.

Let’s assume for the moment that the various intelligence programs are if not illegal (as there does not seem to be much basis for that), then at least a grave betrayal of the public trust. Especially with secret programs, it becomes very difficult to properly oversee the programs and have intelligent public debate about these programs because the details are unknown, and it is almost a certainty that the government has “over-classified” (even if done with the best of intentions). While all of this is still subject to debate, if true, it may well be a moral good to leak this type of information.

Some civil libertarians have hailed leakers such as Snowden and Bradley Manning for their “courage” in leaking information about these programs. Snowden said that he did it because he believed that it was the public’s place to decide whether these are good program or not. But what makes him think that it is his place to decide to publicize those programs. While one may not be comfortable in even George W. Bush (or worse, Dick Cheney) collecting all sorts of private information, I am far less comfortable with the idea that the decision to leak the information is made by a Snowden–a 29-year old high school dropout whose claims to have worked at the Agency seem a bit dubious, and really suggest that he was always a contractor–or Manning, a 22-year-old enlisted man with a history of emotional problems who had been demoted for unrelated reasons before being arrested. Bush and Cheney were bad elected officials, but they were at least accountable to the public. Snowden and Manning are accountable to no one. Nor could I imagine that either of them have anything other than a very narrow view of national security programs, and where each of these fit into a broader scheme of national security. Surely, there are senior officers in the national security or intelligence community who are questioners, and they have not leaked the information. That has to at least give me second thoughts about the wisdom of making the program public.

The other issue is to whom this information is leaked. The government has intentionally set up an infrastructure to foster leaking. There are plenty of people within the chain of command in the military and the intelligence community, and there are a inspectors general in each of these government agencies that a person could seek out. Failing that, there are a number of elected officials who champion libertarian principles, so why did Snowden not seek out Mark Udall or Chuck Grassley (famously solicitous of government leakers), or Rand Paul or Bernie Sanders? Instead, these programs were leaked to Wikileaks and the Guardian–if going to the press, why not at least go to the New York Times?

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