Even open societies have secrets to keep. Democracies face dangers that make pure transparency impossible. Against the public's right to know is a duty to keep vital information from our enemies, of which the United States has no shortage.
Trouble is, too much secrecy can foster corruption and all sorts of illegal behavior. The U.S. government has no shortage of all that, too.
Americans have every reason in the world to distrust their government. It's too large, too unaccountable, and often too stupid to be safe. The problem with the sort of domestic spying that the U.S. government has embraced with such gusto over the past decade is that it requires collecting vast amounts of information that serves no purpose in keeping the nation safe.
"Intelligence, by its very nature, is information that you can do something with or about," observes Angelo Codevilla, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University. "It is not about reveling in secrets. Trying to learn about secrets apart from plans for action amounts to voyeurism."
The counterintelligence program John and Bonnie Raines helped expose decades ago -- a program that involved domestic spying and also theft, disinformation and blackmail -- is an example of voyeuristic government run amok. That's not to say the government had no legitimate reason to worry about New Left radicals -- the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers were criminals and terrorists, after all. But the crimes of a few did not warrant violating the rights of the many.
Comparing the Raineses' caper to Edward Snowden's crimes, however, does little to serve the cause of the truth. What Snowden did was orders of magnitude worse.
Here's the difference: Snowden didn't simply expose domestic spying. He revealed to America's enemies vital secrets -- a vast and undifferentiated trove of data that one intelligence veteran called "the keys to the kingdom" -- and fled to Russia by way of Communist China.
Snowden's theft compromised not just a controversial and constitutionally dubious intelligence-gathering program. It also undermined perfectly legitimate spying. Let's not be naive. This "whistleblower" did great damage in the name of democracy and freedom.