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Whistleblowers need protection

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A federal contractor employee in Honolulu who leaked classified information to reporters is being hailed by many Americans as a whistleblower who revealed a program that has gathered hundreds of millions of U.S. phone records and Internet data in the battle against terrorism. The Obama administration insists that the activity is legal, albeit secret. Whistleblower Edward Snowden should face consequences, but that should not include overzealous prosecution.

Snowden, 29, recognizes the potential of criminal charges, having left his Honolulu job at a National Security Agency contractor several weeks ago and was seen Sunday in Hong Kong, where he hoped for refuge. The federal Whistleblower Protection Act protects an employee who discloses evidence of a specific danger to public health or safety, but not to privacy. The state law protects an employee who reports or is about to report violations of law by a government agency or contractor.

Snowden told The Guardian of Britain that he "carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest. There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is."

So far, Snowden’s actions seem to support his claims of the greater good — to let Americans know the depth and breadth of their government’s surveillance into their daily lives. No one was in harm’s way with his revelations. He went through credible news outlets, via journalists in the profession of vetting information. His turning over material to The Guardian and The Washington Post has been valuable to the public, revealing the Obama administration’s surveillance that Americans should have known about the federal agency’s PRISM system. While the system has been secretive to most Americans, Congress has allowed it and President Barack Obama has used it.

Veterans of the Obama administration insist that large collections of digital data are vital in the war against terrorism. Obama has argued that that "modest encroachments on privacy" have been "worth us doing."

The Justice Department issued a statement last month that whistleblower protection applies only to those who follow certain channels regarding classified information. "We cannot sanction or condone federal employees who knowingly and willfully disclose classified information to the media or others not entitled to receive such information," it says, chillingly reminiscent of the Richard Nixon administration.

Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The in 1971, was charged with theft, conspiracy and espionage and walked free when the judge dismissed charges. On Monday, Ellsberg wrote, "In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material," including the Pentagon Papers.

"It should have been in the public domain all along," noted terrorism expert Brian Jenkins to Slate. "The fact is, terrorists know we’re watching their communications. Well, some of them, it seems, are idiots, but if they were all idiots, we wouldn’t need a program like this. The sophisticated ones, the ones we’re worried about, they know this."

Those who were unaware of the depth of PRISM’s collecting information were typical Americans who expected privacy from the government’s surveillance of terrorists. The public revelation should result in a debate over how much it should be reduced and limited to plausible enemies.

There will be consequences to Snowden for apparently breaching the confidentiality and trust of his employer. That is the price he should be willing to pay for his public display of civic conscience on behalf of Americans’ privacy. But how our government chooses to deal with — and punish — Snowden will be telling indeed about the country we’ve become.

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