Hail Edward Snowden, Public Servant: Economist

Edward Snowden
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Edward Snowden

The revelation that the National Security Agency is tracking every phone call each American makes, and broadly mining Internet data puts President Obama at the center of yet another controversy. He and supporters in the Republican leadership, not Edward Snowden, are making themselves villains.

Two sets of issues are central. Do NSA practices strike a reasonable balance between the threats posed by global terrorism and the right to privacy? Are these the least intrusive necessary? Are safeguards against abuse adequate?

Will Edward Snowden be thrown in jail for revealing classified information under the Espionage Act or other statutes?

The president argues the nation needs to strike a balance between security and liberty. As with free speech—you can't yell fire in a movie theater—the right to privacy is not absolute.

However, if Americans are going to have a reasoned discussion, they must know what the government is up to, especially when it collects broad information that could be used to paint a sophisticated picture of each American's political leanings, sexual orientation and flavor of ice cream they prefer.

The president can't have it both ways—engage in an informed dialogue but not reveal the practices that need to be discussed. We can't know if these practices are the least intrusive necessary if the NSA does not list out its feasible options and potential risks, explain why it chose metadata, and enter into a public debate with the technology community alternative strategies.

Obama's second argument is that Americans can trust him and the government not to abuse metadata—not to connect the dots about the details of ordinary folk's lives to pigeonhole and persecute them.

The "trust me" argument simply does not wash. The IRS controversy is all about government employees exploiting private information—for example, illegally providing environmental activists with data about the political contributions of farmers, and harassing folks for simply wishing to organize or be part of conservative civic groups.

Counting on the government to restrain itself is like leaving an unreformed alcoholic in a room full of booze overnight and expecting him to emerge sober.

Simply, the president's explanations and alibis are disingenuous, and Snowden's actions likely did a public service. Though we need to know more, we should recognize that he did not sell or secretly give the information he received to terrorists, who likely already knew the NSA is amassing metadata. And importantly, if the NSA's actions are harmless to ordinary folks, as the president states, then Snowden did not reveal anything harmful to national security either.

Missing in all this is a better understanding of the government safeguards against abuse of metadata—but Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and others want to keep a clear picture of those processes from us too. We should know with a suitable time lag, for example, what search warrants and investigations have been pursued on the basis of information gleaned from metadata.

Snowden is making possible the public discussion the president says we need, and with the support of responsible Republicans, the president should step forward and frankly discuss with the American public what the NSA and other counter-terrorism agencies are doing and why.

As for Snowden, he does not appear very sophisticated but just young, idealistic and confused. After a brief period of celebrity, if left alone by the government, his employment opportunities will be curtailed by his actions and he will pay a price.

The economist in me says let the market decide and discipline whistleblowers who reveal embarrassing, but not harmful information.

Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and a widely published columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @PMorici1.