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Robinson: Thank Edward Snowden for debate about snooping

  • (JACK OHMAN / Sacramento Bee)

Edward Snowden's renegade decision to reveal the jaw-dropping scope of the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance is being vindicated — even as Snowden himself is being vilified.

Intelligence officials in the Obama administration and their allies on Capitol Hill paint the fugitive analyst as nothing but a traitor who wants to harm the United States. Many of those same officials grudgingly acknowledge, however, that public debate about the NSA's domestic snooping is now unavoidable.

This would be impossible if Snowden — or someone like him — hadn't spilled the beans. We wouldn't know that the NSA is keeping a database of all our phone calls. We wouldn't know that the government gets the authority to keep track of our private communications — even if we are not suspected of terrorist activity or associations — from secret judicial orders issued by a secret court based on secret interpretations of the law.

Snowden, of course, is hardly receiving the thanks of a grateful nation. He has spent the last five weeks trapped in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo Airport outside Moscow. Russian officials, who won't send him home for prosecution, wish he would move along. But he fears that if he takes off for one of the South American countries that have offered asylum, he risks being intercepted en route and extradited. It's a tough situation, and time is not on his side.

You can cheer Snowden's predicament or you can bemoan it. But even some of the NSA's fiercest defenders have admitted, if not in so many words, that Snowden performed a valuable public service.

Less than two weeks ago, the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a public statement to announce that the secret Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court has renewed the government's authority to collect “metadata” about our phone calls.

This was being disclosed “in light of the significant and continuing public interest in the ... collection program.”

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