Stephen Holmes and Economist's Edward Lucas debate NSA leaks and Snowden

The question of whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a villain persists more than a year after he revealed the extent of the National Security Administration’s surveillance of ordinary Americans’ private communications and data. Edward Lucas, senior editor of the Economist, has come down against Snowden with his just-released book, The Snowden Operation: Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster. On March 13, he joined Stephen Holmes, Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law, to debate the subect with Ryan Goodman, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law and co-editor of Just Security, moderating.

Edward Lucas

Lucas, an expert in intelligence and cyber-security issues who covered Central and Eastern Europe for more than 20 years, argued that Snowden’s leaks drastically threatened American security, and did not provide sufficient evidence of wrongdoing by the NSA to justify the breadth of the leaks. “I instinctively approach whistleblowers with sympathy because it’s a brave thing to do… and I was initially sympathetic to Edward Snowden,” Lucas said. But, he argued, whistleblowers must meet three criteria: they must be exposing wrongdoing, the information they leak must contribute to the greater public safety, and the information leaked must be proportionate to the wrongdoings exposed.

“Clearly the NSA chafes against its legal and constitutional restraints… but I couldn’t see any evidence in the Snowden files that have been released that showed systematic disregard for those constitutional and legal restraints,” Lucas said, adding, “I don’t see the public interest in giving away how democracies spy on dictatorships. I think democracies should spy on dictatorships.”

Stephen Holmes

Holmes, whose expertise includes national security law, democratic theory, and Russia, argued that the ease with which Snowden leaked classified NSA documents in fact demonstrates just how untrustworthy the NSA is as an agency whose purpose includes the protection of national security secrets. “The NSA, through its contractor Booz Allen Hamilton hired a person who was completely irresponsible… they put [classified information] into the hands of an individual who was from their point of view completely untrustworthy,” Holmes said.

Holmes added that the true source of the problem of national security leaks was not merely Snowden's action as an individual, whom he described as “neither a patriot nor a traitor [but] an irresponsible young man." Rather, he argued, the fault lies with the problems presented by digitalization and a swollen bureaucracy with a strong imperative, post-9/11, to share information. 

"The question is… who should decide how much information citizens need to choose or to make a decision about the competence or the intelligence of government policy,” said Holmes. “That’s the issue that’s brought up by this… that governments can’t decide how much information citizens need to decide if the government is doing the right thing.”

 Just Security, an online forum on law, rights, and US national security based at NYU Law’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, has covered the NSA revelations at great length (read a few of the many Just Security posts on the topic from NYU Law Professors Richard EpsteinBarry FriedmanRyan Goodman, and Christopher Sprigman).

Watch the full video of the debate, which delved further into topics including intelligence oversight, the problems created by digitized information, and how Edward Snowden ended up in Russia, here.

Posted March 21, 2014