Some people say that Edward Snowden is a hero because the secret NSA spying program that he exposed was ripe for abuse. Other people say Edward Snowden is a villain, because the program seemed to be well-run and lawful. Both of these positions are grounded in fantasy. Nobody knows whether the government's power was abused; it's a secret. That's the problem. That's the point.
All of the various adjacent uproars that went along with the revelations of the spying program itself— "Is Glenn Greenwald really a journalist?" "Is Edward Snowden a traitor?" "Is it okay for some kid and some journalists to decide what should and shouldn't be classified?"— seem to skirt around the most important issue at hand. That issue is government secrecy itself. In a democracy, in which our government operates with our consent, government secrecy is a poison. Who likes government secrecy? The government, naturally. What mechanism do we have to counteract government secrecy? The free press. And how does the press learn about government secrets? From leakers, like Edward Snowden.
This is the understanding that must underlie all conversation about this topic. Is PRISM necessary? Has PRISM saved countless American lives? Is PRISM oversight sufficient to prevent its abuse? Does the NSA always follow strict Constitutional mandates? Is this program the least invasive possible solution? Is the privacy of Americans being routinely invaded when faceless officials deem it necessary? We do not know. Nobody knows. It's a secret. The arguments between various pundits over whether they think the government is abusing these spying powers, or whether they think this program is necessary, are fundamentally worthless. They do not know. They are supposing. Likewise, the assurances of various elected officials that they have been satisfied with the NSA's answers in various classified briefings are also worthless. There is no way to know whether or not those assurances are trustworthy. Likewise, the fact that a spying program or action has been approved by a secret court whose decision and reasoning and evidence is secret is worthless. There is no way to judge whether the court's approval was or was not appropriate or warranted. It is all a secret.
And this is the problem to which the NSA story should be directing our attention. It is a waste of our time to fall back on jingoistic arguments about what it takes to "keep America safe," or wails of outrage over imagined abuses taking place deep within the NSA's secret compounds. We can have those arguments any time, and forever. What this story has shown us the depth of government secrecy— the vast and terrifying extent of what we don't know. The fundamental problem is not "The government is out to protect you, and they don't need traitors exposing their methods," or "The government is evil, and all its actions must be opposed in all cases." The fundamental problem is the exercise of great government power with no attendant accountability. The problem is a democratically elected government presuming that it is owed the trust of the public. It doesn't work that way. And that is why everyone, regardless of personal politics, deserves to be upset with the fact that our government is collecting all of our communications data, and doing... secret things with it.
In a perfect world, perhaps, a government capable of monitoring its own power could exist. Until then, we have the press. The most important job of the press is to push hard to bring government secrets to light. (Yes, in some cases, judgment is required, and it is often exercised, including in the case of this NSA story. To nitpick over that point is a sideshow.) Why is this so important? Because if the press does not expose government secrets, no one else will. There is no other check on the government's powers of secrecy. This is the system we have. And this is why it is so distressing to see professional journalists acceding to the government's own demand for secrecy— saying, in effect, "we'll just take their word that everything is okay." It doesn't matter if a journalist happens to think the current administration is trustworthy; journalists still seek out government secrets, because that is the journalist's role. Only corrupt bureaucrats see their mission as keeping the activities of our free government secret from the people they affect. There are more than enough corrupt bureaucrats already. We don't need the press to do their job for them.
The government has always tried to keep too many secrets. That, we expect. But when the press gives up on exposing those secrets, it is really time to start worrying. Because then there is no balance of power at all.