“Sometimes leakers have to leak,” Brooks writes, but he is not persuaded that Snowden had to,even if he “faced a moral dilemma.” Maybe something there was worth mentioning—perhapswith a tap on the shoulder of a mentor with whom he had built a record of deference. ButSnowden did it all wrong; having read a few of his comments on the press, Brooks decides thatthe young man “was obsessed with the danger of data mining but completely oblivious to his betrayals and toward the damage he has done to social arrangements and the invisible bonds thathold them together.”
Snowden damaged “social arrangements”? Perhaps private ones; with his girlfriend, for example. But if Brooks means the sort of arrangements that keep members of Congress, who aresupposed to be exercising oversight, from pushing back after secret briefings, or that lead thePresident to tell us that the acquiescence of all three branches—even when one is represented bya secret, rubber-stamping court—should ease all doubts about a policy, then perhaps somedamage is useful. The same logic applies when we talk about the arrangements betweengovernment agencies and private companies like Booz Allen—led by a former intelligenceofficial—that have helped bloat our national-security system with secrets. Brooks, as I’vewritten before, seems to have a greater horror of impoliteness than of injustice.That comes across in another item on his list of Snowden’s offenses: “He betrayed the cause of open government. Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust alittle tighter. They limit debate a little more.” Or maybe they will realize that they can’t lie withimpunity; maybe the next time James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, is asked adirect question in a Senate hearing, he will wonder, before offering a blatant falsehood inresponse, if he might get caught.Clapper said “no” when Senator Ron Wyden asked him whether the N.S.A. was collecting dataof any kind from Americans. (“Not wittingly,” he added, as though one could unwittingly seek asecret court order.) When Andrea Mitchell, of NBC, asked him about his response after theleaks, Clapper said that he’d thought it was a “ ‘When are you going to start—stop beating your wife’ kind of question”—that is, somehow cheap. Actually, if you
beating your wife, it is a perfectly fair question. Clapper conceded that his answer might have been “too cute by half,”relying on a separate “semantic” understanding of certain words: “when someone says‘collection’ to me, that has a specific meaning, which may have a different meaning to him.”(“Collection” is not what you’d think of as a terribly technical term.)The failure of the Senate hearings, despite Wyden’s best efforts, brings us back to the issue of what, exactly, Snowden was supposed to do. Brooks says he “self-indulgently short-circuited thedemocratic structures of accountability,” and wonders if what he knew was really “so grave” asto be worth contributing to “the corrosive spread of cynicism.” Snowden, he said, “is makingeverything worse.” His choices only make sense, according to Brooks, “if you live a lifeunshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society.”The press is not among the elements of civil society that Brooks lists; and yet it is the one towhich Snowden turned. He did not drop his documents from a helicopter, and neither did thereporters, who are often there when what Brooks might regard as less crass safeguards fail.Whistle-blowing and investigative reporting can be loud, and grating, and necessary.