Want to Reform the NSA? Give Edward Snowden Immunity

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In 1970, Christopher Pyle disclosed in public writing that the U.S. Army was running a domestic intelligence program aimed at anti-war and civil-rights activists. His disclosure began a series of public-accountability leaks, the most famous of which was Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers. These disclosures, the FBI’s notorious abuses in COINTELPRO, and the Watergate leaks taught Americans that the national-security system can take profoundly dangerous constitutional turns. They formed the foundation of the political will that led to the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978. And although Ellsberg and his collaborator Anthony Russo were prosecuted, their cases were dismissed.

This series of events that helped cement the role of unauthorized public disclosure as a systemic check on the predictable cycles of error in the national-security system. The leakers of the 1970s became heroes who exposed systemic failure, and the nation did not punish those who helped it correct the excesses.

For a quarter of a century, leaks continued apace, though not the kind of public-accountability disclosures that typified the early 1970s. These were the normal grist for the mill for the national press: gossip and backstabbing, trial balloons and glorified insider war stories—leaks that, as David Pozen showed, existed long before the 1970s and have continued without noticeable increase or decrease ever since. Only one leak, the clearly improper disclosure of satellite images of a Soviet aircraft carrier to Jane’s, was ever prosecuted, and the norm of not prosecuting for leaks to the press was so strong that Senator Daniel..

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