I’m with Josh Barro:
For America’s intelligence and diplomatic apparatus to work, it needs to be able to do secret things whose disclosure would be damaging to American interests. And it needs to be able to bind government employees and contractors to not to make those disclosures. Snowden broke his commitment to safeguard a wide variety of secrets, many of whose disclosure was in no apparent public interest.
Snowden’s wide-ranging disclosures of secret documents did reveal some matters of genuine public interest, which should never have been secret, particularly the extent of the National Security Agency’s collection of electronic data on Americans. They also made clear that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to Congress about what sort of data the NSA was collecting (tortured explanation from DNI General Counsel Robert Litt notwithstanding). This has had a positive effect on the public discourse, which I acknowledge.
But the key term in my description of Snowden’s leaks is “wide-ranging.” Snowden also disclosed a large number of documents that had nothing to do with Americans’ privacy. His disclosures include information about U.S. hacking of Chinese computer systems; U.S. spying on Russian President Dmitri Medvedev during the 2009 G20 summit London (and simultaneous British surveillance of other targets); the existence of 80 NSA listening stations around the globe, including one in Berlin which was used to monitor the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel; and much more.
Often, far from revealing wrongdoing, these disclosures simply showed how the NSA is doing the job it is supposed to do. These disclosures make it harder for the NSA, our other intelligence agencies, and the State Department to do their jobs, negatively impacting U.S. foreign policy goals.
Snowden’s defenders often say that his disclosures haven’t had any demonstrable negative impact on U.S. security. That relies on too narrow a definition of “security,” along the lines of “did they enable a terrorist attack?” The Snowden disclosures have worsened our relations with a variety of our allies and competitors, notably including the Germans, the Russians, and the Brazilians. The U.S. invests a lot of money and energy in fostering favorable international relations; if damage to those relations is irrelevant, there’s a lot of diplomacy we can just stop bothering with.
This post is even more to the point on why Snowden deserves jail time instead of clemency.