When Edward Snowden leaked classified information about U.S. intelligence programs this month, he became both a criminal and, many would say, a conscientious citizen. His quest to evade American authorities now risks making him a distraction.
As of this writing, Snowden's whereabouts are unknown. He reportedly flew Monday from Hong Kong to Moscow, but Russia says it has no information about him. Ecuador says he has asked for asylum.
What Snowden thinks he's up to is also in doubt. His asylum application says he can't expect a fair trial or humane treatment in the United States. Regardless of whether he's right, seeking aid from countries not exactly known for respecting the rights of their citizens raises the question of what exactly it is about the U.S.'s treatment of its citizens that is so noxious.
Snowden's location and motives are interesting to speculate about, but they shouldn't distract attention from what really matters in all this:
• Twelve years after the Sept. 11 attacks (and two years after the killing of Osama bin Laden), the security apparatus created in response is growing, not shrinking.
• The U.S. government is monitoring its citizens' communications on a scale that was previously unknown and is without precedent.
• The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has declined just 11 of the government's more than 33,900 surveillance requests.
• The legal interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which is used by that court to rule on government requests for information, is classified. So the laws that enable this surveillance are themselves, in effect, secret.
• The group meant to guarantee appropriate privacy safeguards, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, was authorized by Congress in 2007, but didn't get a full-time chairman until last month, and has met with President Obama exactly once.
The government has a legitimate interest in pursuing Snowden. His leaks were a crime that has to be prosecuted. In doing so, the Obama administration could also show that Snowden's concerns about a fair trial (and proportionate charges) are unfounded.
Even more important, though, is that Snowden's revelations have thrown a spotlight on a balance between security and liberty that the government has been striking largely in secret. Snowden started a debate Obama now says he wants. So do we. That's the discussion that counts.