Point-Counterpoint: Snowden is a patriot

Even now, 40 years later, there's reluctance in some quarters to give John and Bonnie Raines -- along with their allies who planned and executed the FBI break-in -- their proper status as heroes of freedom.

"I don't believe such people have the right to take it upon themselves and make decisions about what should be made public," grumbles Pat Kelly, who was an FBI agent at the office that suffered the break-in. He called the perpetrators "criminals, not patriots."

"Such people" revealed that the FBI was acting illegally by surveying and undermining domestic anti-war groups -- a bit of information that casts Mr. Kelly's categories of "criminals" and "patriots" into new light.

It might be hard to draw lessons for today from a 40-year-old example, except that the incident confirms lessons from nearly every other revelation of classified information since then: The more secrecy the government has, the less privacy you have. The more secrecy the government has, the less information you as a citizen of a democracy have to guide and influence the decisions of your elected officials in Washington.

Consider: Nearly 5 million Americans have security clearances that allow them access to classified information; the government classifies more than 90 million documents a year. Everybody agrees that there's too much information being classified, but almost nobody is doing anything about it.

Which means that our governance is happening in the dark, underground, away from the prying eyes of the public it is supposed to serve. This is not what we should want for ourselves as free people.

Not everybody can be John and Bonnie Raines. Not everybody should be Edward Snowden. But when they do act, we should understand they act as citizens defending freedom and democratic governance. Otherwise the presumption is that government gets to keep its secrets and private citizens don't. It's a vulgar idea, unworthy of our ideals.

Joel Mathis (joelmmathisgmail.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Website: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.