No wonder Snowden and other freshly minted idealists who wind up with access to our most sensitive secrets freak out at the first glimpse of excess, even if they can't quite pinpoint any specific abuse. Confusion reigns, and leaks rain down, when hypocrites in Congress, the courts and the executive branch claim they've got our backs when they don't.
As a journalist I rue the implications of all this for my own profession. King should be reminded that punishing the messenger never stops the drip and inevitably diminishes constitutional protections for us all, even him.
But because my CIA service taught me that secrets can sometimes save lives and make bad policies better, I must extend a tentative benefit of the doubt to a constitutional law professor turned president who is struggling, without a roadmap, to balance unprecedented post-9/11 security needs and time-honored constitutional values.
Let's face it: In an era of instant threat, Web-nurtured sappers and the amplification-by-Internet of the damage from truly dangerous leaks, who's to be faulted for erring on the side of caution?
And though I share Snowden's belief in the purifying powers of transparency, I can only hope he resists the zealot's temptation to burn down the village in order to save it. That only stokes the bomb-throwers and those in government who oppose letting any light into the darker corners of our espionage empire.
Nor is self-restraint just for cowards and losers. Ellsberg, after all, held back some of the most sensitive of the Pentagon Papers, those that protected diplomatic efforts to end the Vietnam War. And my own book exposed none of the secrets I knew that had survived the fall of Saigon. Even so, my concerns got aired anyway -- and maybe, just maybe, some of my successors in the spy world learned enough from what I wrote not to repeat the mistakes that shamed us.
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