Edward Snowden is now out of his limbo at Moscow's airport, presumably ensconced in some Russian dacha, wondering what the next phase of his young life will bring. Having spent 30 years in the intelligence business, I fervently hope the food is lousy, the winter is cold, and the Internet access is awful. But I worry less about what happens to this one man and more about the damage Snowden has done — and could still do — to America's long-term ability to strike the right balance between privacy and security.
Ever since Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, leaked top-secret material about its surveillance programs, he and the U.S. government have locked horns about the nature of those programs.
But those following the Snowden saga should understand two key points. First, though many things need to be kept secret in today's dangerous world, the line between “secret” and “not secret” is fuzzy rather than stark, and if the goal is security, the harsh truth is that we should often err toward more secrets rather than fewer. Second, despite the grumbling from Snowden and his admirers, the U.S. government truly does make strenuous efforts not to violate privacy, not just because it respects privacy (which it does), but because it simply doesn't have the time to read irrelevant emails or listen in on conversations unconnected to possible plots against American civilians.
Incidents like the Snowden affair put my former colleagues in the intelligence community in an impossible position. Yes, the official explanations about the virtues of data-collection efforts can sound self-justifying and vague. But they're still right. I know firsthand that Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, is telling the truth when he talks about plots that have been pre-empted and attacks that have been foiled because of intelligence his agency collected. I know because I was on the inside, I have long held security clearances and I participated in many of the activities he describes.