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Why Snowden's Disclosures of Foreign Surveillance Are Legitimate

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In arguing against clemency for Edward Snowden, Fred Kaplan cites the disclosure of documents that reveal putatively legitimate anti-terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Based on those documents, Barton Gellman and Greg Miller of the Washington Post wrote a story about NSA/CIA collaboration in the killing of a target with a drone strike in Pakistan in 2012.

Kaplan argues that revealing this information exposed legitimate anti-terrorist actions of U.S. intelligence agencies and compromised the security of the nation. But it's worth asking why the American public should not know about this? Our government now implements a strategy and technology that includes the targeted killing of foreign nationals in countries with which we are not at war, more than 10 years after the Al Qaeda attack on the US. Shouldn't an informed public in a democratic country know a) the rationale, b) the consequences c) the effectiveness surrounding this campaign?

Kaplan claims that these activities are neither illegal nor immoral and should not have been disclosed. That's a sweeping judgment to make on behalf of the international community. Moreover, the drone operation in question killed an Al Qaeda operative who led U.S. agents to Osama Bin Laden's courier, and ultimately to Bin Laden himself. We're already pretty well-informed about parts of this tale. Why? Because CIA Director Leon Panetta told Zero Dark Thirty scriptwriter Matthew Boal about it in 2011 during a speech at CIA headquarters. The speech contained classified information. So did the movie.

Two things. First, if we live in a country that allows us only the official line about an extremely controversial story that involves torture and death, then we live in an authoritarian state, not a democracy. We are obliged to base our opinion on official propaganda rather than the full array of relevant facts. Second, we have not only a right but an obligation to know that our government is frequently killing people in another country. We should know this because our government's actions may involve us in yet another war or destabilize an already dangerously unstable country in a region equipped with nuclear weapons.

Conor Friedersdorf made this argument in The Atlantic. He pointed out that the debate about Snowden's disclosures has to do with democracy vs. authoritarianism, not privacy vs. security. Framing the controversy as a need to balance personal privacy and national security trivializes the concept of individual freedom and forces us to weigh petty inconveniences against mortal danger. Because of Edward Snowden's disclosures about NSA/CIA collaboration on the drone program in Pakistan, we now know that the real balancing act may well be about an informed awareness of our country's foreign policy vs. unquestioning support for the murder of civilians abroad, whoever they are.

Bea Edwards is Executive & International Director of the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection organization.