The information Edward Snowden leaked after abruptly leaving the United States launched an important discussion about limits to intelligence gathering and protections for civil liberties. Although he breached confidentiality rules to reveal that information, it was understandable that Snowden was viewed in some quarters as little more than a concerned American standing up for constitutional rights. But Snowden clearly crossed a line when he began seeking refuge from nations at cross-purposes with the United States and began leaking information about how the U.S. spies on those countries.
Now he is an international fugitive, wanted in this country for espionage. From what has been widely reported in the media, it appears the Obama administration was correct to seek extradition, and it also is troubling that neither the Chinese nor the Russians have been willing to cooperate with extradition requests. Administration officials say this could complicate relations with those nations. It also raises troubling questions about Snowden's possible connections with those nations, or perhaps other groups, before he made his famous break with his employer, government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.
Snowden told the South China Morning Post he deliberately took the job with Booz Allen Hamilton with the intention of gathering secret information on the National Security Agency. This suggests something other than a patriotic whistle blower who stumbled on information he thought violated the law. Snowden previously had worked as a technician for the CIA. It is appropriate to question whether his intent was to deliberately do harm to the United States and then seek refuge among those with whom he may have been in league.
His sudden relationship with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange adds to those suspicions. Assange made a name for himself by leaking scores of classified U.S. documents without any regard as to their contents, who might get hurt, or any loyalty to higher principles. He is a fugitive from justice for different reasons, being wanted in Sweden to face charges connected to sex crimes.
It is difficult to separate the need to extradite Snowden from the legitimate need for a broad national discussion over the collection of data on U.S. citizens, but that distinction must be made. The news that government officials are collecting vast amounts of information concerning telephone and computer communications raises concerns about possible abuses of authority. While it is true that the world has become a complicated place where the nation's enemies seek to use technology to compromise safety, that should not negate the value of time-honored constitutional guarantees against government abuses.
It was ironic, but instructive, to hear how former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reacted over the weekend when her progressive supporters booed and heckled her for saying Snowden is a criminal. The irony is that conservatives tend to be more in line with law-and-order positions than do liberals. But, according to CNN, Pelosi said, "I know that some of you attribute heroic status to (Snowden's) action, but, again, you don't have the responsibility for the security of the United States. Those of us who do have to strike a difference balance."
It's that balance the nation needs to confront, even as it tracks down a man who has gathered intelligence and does not appear to have the nation's interests at heart.