What is The “Real Story” About Edward Snowden and His Disclosure of NSA Activities?

Whenever Edward Snowden is discussed, I invariably encounter the following response:

Edward Snowden is not the issue. You’re trying to distract people by changing the topic. The real issue is what Snowden disclosed about government surveillance, and anyone who talks about Snowden is not talking about the real issue.

I find this response puzzling. There are two stories here. On one hand, Snowden revealed documents showing how the government was implementing its national surveillance authorities. That’s a big story, and I blogged about it several times. But on the other hand, Snowden himself is a big story, too. Here’s a guy who has single-handedly exposed some of America’s deepest national security secrets because keeping them secret offended his personal ideological commitments. That’s a big story, too.

Plus, they’re both pretty interesting for a legal blog specifically. I’m a surveillance law nerd, and I was fascinated by what Snowden has revealed so far. Granted, what Snowden has revealed so far either appears to check out as legal and constitutional or at least was so approved by the federal judges on the FISA court (with too few facts known so far to be able to say much more to question that). So there isn’t quite a “scandal” there. But there are some interesting law nerd issues that I’ve blogged about a few times.

At the same time, there are really interesting legal issues with Snowden, too. Granted, what Snowden did is clearly illegal. Snowden has pretty much admitted to his conduct, so there isn’t much in the way of drama on the legal issues there. (As usually happens when a crime is committed for ideological reasons, some who share the actor’s ideological views think that he shouldn’t be prosecuted and that any prosecution is really a “persecution.” But ideology aside, the illegality seems clear.) At the same time, Snowden’s effort to evade U.S. jurisdiction is fascinating from a legal standpoint; it reveals the limits of U.S. law enforcement in a global world with many countries not entirely friendly to U.S. interests. And the facts of what he did is the perfect symbol of the problem of keeping secrets in an Internet age. How do you design a way of keeping secrets when a single committed actor wants to frustrate that goal and can download all the secrets onto a thumb drive? These are fascinating and interesting questions, I think.

So there are two stories here. And given that, I don’t understand the claims of those who insist that the former is the “real story” and the latter a “distraction.” They’re both big stories, and it’s legitimate to cover them both.

More broadly, I don’t know what the standard is for declaring one of these big stories a “real story” and the other a “distraction.” Each of us gets to decide which of the two stories we find more interesting and which we want to discuss at a particular time. Now, perhaps the claims about “real stories” and “distractions” are just themselves cynical efforts to distract others into changing the topic. Or, less cynically, perhaps they reflect a certain myopia among those who think that what they personally care about must be the real story and what they personally don’t care about must be a distraction. But at least taken at face value, I don’t understand how one person can decide for someone else what “the real story” is; I would think that is up to each person to decide.