The important thing right now isn't whether Edward Snowden should be labeled hero or villain. First, let's have the debate he sparked over surveillance and privacy. Then we can decide how history should remember him.
Snowden is the 29-year-old intelligence analyst and computer geek who has been leaking some of the National Security Agency's most precious secrets to journalists from The Washington Post and the Guardian. He is now on the lam, having checked out of the Hong Kong hotel where he was holed up for several weeks as he orchestrated a worldwide media splash that shows no sign of ending.
Snowden betrayed his employer, the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, and his promise not to divulge classified information. He paints what he did as an act of civil disobedience, but he has decided to seek political asylum abroad rather than surrender to authorities and accept the consequences. In published interviews, he comes across as grandiose to the point of self-parody, a legend in his own mind.
He is an imperfect messenger, to say the least. But his message should not be ignored.
Did you know that the NSA is compiling and storing a massive, comprehensive log of our domestic phone calls? I didn't. Nor did I know that the agency sucks in huge volumes of email traffic and other electronic data overseas -- not just communications originating in trouble spots such as Pakistan but also in countries such as Germany and Britain.
As President Barack Obama noted, nobody is eavesdropping on the phone calls of U.S. citizens and residents. I'm not certain this could be said about email communications in other countries, some of which take privacy as seriously as we do. British Foreign Secretary William Hague felt obliged Monday to reassure Parliament that "our intelligence-sharing work with the United States is subject to ministerial and independent oversight" and to legislative scrutiny.
But we have oversight of intelligence operations in this country, too. The problem is that the system works more or less like a rubber stamp.
The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has to issue the orders that allow the NSA to collect "metadata" from telephone providers. But as far as I can tell -- we are not allowed to know the content of the court's rulings, and have to make do with crumbs of, well, metadata -- the court's standard answer is yes.
In its 34 years of existence, the court has approved more than 30,000 government requests for surveillance authority while rejecting a grand total of 11. That is not what I'd call oversight.
The NSA's snooping is also subject to scrutiny by the intelligence committees of the Senate and House. The chairmen of those panels -- Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich. -- have been among the NSA's most vocal supporters in recent days. But since so much of the committees' work is classified, they say they can't tell us why.
And as for Obama, he said last week that "I welcome this debate and I think it's healthy for our democracy." Why, then, didn't he launch the discussion rather than wait for Snowden's leaks?
In the coming debate, someone should explain why a midlevel computer guy working for a private contractor had access to so many of the NSA's most closely held secrets. Someone should explain why the intelligence court is evidently so compliant. Someone should explain -- perhaps in French, German and Spanish -- why our allies' emails are fair game for the agency's prying eyes.
But here's the big issue: The NSA, it now seems clear, is assembling an unimaginably vast trove of communications data, and the bigger it gets, the more useful it is in enabling analysts to make predictions. It's one thing if the NSA looks for patterns in the data that suggest a nascent overseas terrorist group or an imminent attack. It's another thing altogether if the agency observes, say, patterns that suggest the birth of the next tea party or Occupy Wall Street movement.
Is that paranoia? Then reassure me. Let's talk about the big picture and decide, as citizens, whether we are comfortable with the direction our intelligence agencies are heading. And let's remember that it was Snowden, not our elected officials, who opened this vital conversation.
Eugene Robinson is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.