Let’s start with the obvious: A democracy needs intelligence agencies. It needs to know what’s happening in the world — and understand the plans of allies and enemies — to keep the nation prepared and secure.
If intelligence work is going to be effective, much of it has to be done in secret. “National security” is not merely an excuse for keeping intelligence activity under wraps: often, the only way to protect our collective well-being is to pursue many national security activities, including intelligence-gathering, in the dark.
But that’s if they’re legitimately in the national interest. All too often, governments use secrecy to protect themselves politically or to shroud activities that, seen in the cold light of day, their citizens would reject. This is why secrecy in government can be dangerous, and should be subject to the checks and balances of our constitutional system.
However legitimate secrecy may be, though, there is a limit to how much a democracy can stand. As ordinary citizens, we need information about what our government is up to in order to make informed and discriminating choices about politicians and policies. Journalists and their media outlets are indispensable conveyors of this information. The work of the journalist, who often presses for a more open, accountable government, creates tensions with a government set upon guarding state secrets. But it’s a healthy, much-needed tension.
Which brings us to Edward Snowden’s revelations to the press about the National Security Agency and its vast efforts to monitor communications. Around Washington, Snowden is routinely excoriated, and he’s none too popular in the country at large, either. But whether he’s a hero or a criminal in your book, there’s no question that because of him, we know far more about the surveillance our government has been carrying out. The expansion of government power that the leaks reveal is without precedent in the modern era. Technology, along with the surveillance and monitoring it enables, has clearly outrun the policies to deal with it.