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doug saunders

There are two recurring trends in the United States: A tendency for powerful military and intelligence agencies to abuse their secrecy, overstep their bounds and make excessive use of their powers; and a tradition of concerned employees blowing the doors off these excesses by breaking ranks and exposing them to the public.

Whistleblowers have had a crucial place in U.S. democracy: Their most dramatic revelations, such as the string of exposures that revealed CIA and military excesses in the early 1970s, have led to regulatory reforms and strict laws that have reined in these secret agencies. Figures such as Christopher Pyle (who exposed Army spying on U.S. citizens) and Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers, which exposed illegal activities in the planning and execution of the Vietnam War) have provoked crucial reforms to the U.S. legal, military and intelligence systems to protect against excesses.

Edward Joseph Snowden, who revealed his name and identity to the world on Sunday, falls squarely into that tradition. The 29-year-old intelligence subcontractor, who like half the 25,000 employees of Booz Allen has top-secret security clearance, decided he didn't like what he was seeing. And he decided to follow the path of those earlier figures, leaking what is likely the most important intelligence abuse to be made public in four decades.

Over the past week, he has revealed to the Washington Post and the Guardian the inner workings of a scheme known as PRISM, wherein the private personal information on foreign suspects contained in major Internet outlets such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple can be tapped and stored in great volumes.

It still isn't completely clear how the program works. A New York Times article on Saturday, citing senior employees of the Internet companies, suggested that the companies had built secure portals which permitted officials to withdraw court-authorized information on foreigners from databanks (though not directly from servers). The Washington Post on Sunday described a more elaborate system, where the data are first passed through FBI computers to ensure that U.S. citizens have not been targeted (which would be illegal).

But the revelation by Mr. Snowden on Sunday that tens of thousands of people may have access to the program suggests that it could be open to abuse – and that it far oversteps what most Americans would consider a reasonable incursion into privacy for counterterrorism purposes – is almost certain to provoke dramatic changes to the way Washington watches people.

Mr. Snowden is the first real whistleblower the U.S. has seen on this scale in a very long time. Unlike other figures who have simply dumped documents for no apparent reason, Mr. Snowden was careful to describe his motive: He identified a program that seemed to abuse the spirit, if not the letter, under which U.S. intelligence is meant to operate.

"We managed to survive greater threats in our history . . . than a few disorganized terrorist groups and rogue states without resorting to these sorts of programs," Mr. Snowden told Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman. "It is not that I do not value intelligence, but that I oppose . . . omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance. . . . That seems to me a greater threat to the institutions of free society than missed intelligence reports, and unworthy of the costs."

It was important for Mr. Snowden to make his precise motives clear, he acknowledged, because the cause of whistleblowing had been damaged by another outsized figure, Bradley Manning, who became famous for dumping tens of thousands of diplomatic cables and other internal documents into the press, using the middleman agency Wikileaks to broker the leaks to the media. He is currently on trial for espionage.

But, while Mr. Manning's supporters have used the term "whistleblower," his actions hardly fit into that tradition: He was not an insider who identified specific wrongdoings within the U.S. Army, where he worked (beyond a generalized dislike of the Iraq War); rather, he dumped the mass of random documents pulled en masse from servers simply in order to provoke a "discussion," as he later said, and out of a belief that the internal documents ought to be public for their own sake.

While his Cablegate leaks were a boon to the media and a nightmare for the Army and the State Department, he wasn't really blowing the whistle on anything. (His most famous document, a video of a terrible helicopter massacre in Iraq, had been fully exposed to a Washington Post reporter by other, genuine whistleblowers the previous year, and had by that point been the subject of a book). As a result of this lack of a goal, the only outcome of his gigantic leak, beyond his own demise, was likely an increase in secrecy.

Mr. Snowden made it clear that he is acting in the tradition of Christopher Pyle and Daniel Ellsberg – principled figures who sought to improve the way America works – rather than simply seeding chaos in the style of Bradley Manning. Monday morning on Twitter, Mr. Ellsberg wrote that "[t]here has not been in American history a more important leak than Snowden's."

"I don't desire to enable the Bradley Manning argument that these [documents] were released recklessly and unreviewed," Mr. Snowden told the Washington Post. He carefully selected his documents to produce a specific effect – the exposure of a potentially dangerous program that went too far and undermined the principles it was supposedly meant to unfold. For that, he falls into a great American tradition.

Doug Saunders is the Globe and Mail's international-affairs columnist. He is on Twitter @dougsaunders

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