This essay was first published in Newsday. At the moment, squirrely data contractor Edward Snowden doesn't look much like a hero. He's reportedly still holed up in a neutral wing of a Moscow airport, searching for a country to protect him from the U.S. government's espionage charges. He's leaking information about the United States spying on its allies, in an apparent effort to embarrass President Barack Obama.
Not heroic, no. In fact, just the opposite. But on this day we celebrate the founding of our democracy, and I believe that Snowden made choices that reaffirm the founders' values. In a democracy, the government's work shouldn't be shrouded in secrecy. Snowden's revelations have exposed policy-makers to needed public debate.
Of course, some secrecy is necessary. But there's evidence that our government's reticence goes well beyond the demands of national security. The Defense Department only last year declassified the Pentagon Papers, 40 years after they ran in American newspapers. Shhhh!
Snowden originally appears to have acted out of conscience. The former National Security Agency techie said he leaked information about the government collecting millions of telephone records and emails in the hope of provoking a national dialogue about surveillance and secrecy.
As a result, we have received vital reassurance from federal officials about how they use this data. To our great relief, we now know that officials aren't reading each email message or listening in on phone calls. The NSA says it sifts for patterns that may reveal terrorist plots. If a computer program catches something suspicious, agents must still obtain a court order to look at the stored data. Officials have also been forced to justify the surveillance by detailing thwarted terrorist plots.
Admittedly, the reasons for Snowden's recent declarations seem less noble. He told a Chinese newspaper that the NSA intercepted the private mobile-phone text messages of millions of Chinese. And a German magazine published his reports of the United States' electronic monitoring of European Union offices and computer networks. Starting trouble for Obama with other governments seems merely vengeful on Snowden's part.
Of course, the president is after him. He wants to put Snowden on trial for violating the Espionage Act of 1917 - the same law under which Pfc. Bradley Manning now faces court-martial. Manning could be sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of giving classified U.S. documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks. I doubt very much that the military court will consider whether Manning served democracy when rendering its verdict.
Government's first inclination is not to preserve democracy, but to preserve itself. So, it's no wonder Snowden is running and hiding. But that doesn't erase the good that has come from his bravery.