In a recent debate on Rethinking the U.S. National Security Apparatus, Michael Hayden, a retired general and the former director of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, said that Edward Snowden “blew the whistle” on the NSA’s use of the Patriot Act’s Section 215 to collect phone records of nearly every American. Hayden observed that while the government felt it had executive, legislative, and judicial approval to use 215 that way, the American people have not consented to this program and have been left out of that process.
Slip of the tongue or not, Hayden’s language legitimises Snowden’s actions, likely acknowledging the increasing public acceptance and approval throughout the US. To “blow the whistle” is to make public a secret act of corruption, wrongdoing or illegality, and for Hayden to say Snowden did so is refreshingly honest, in contrast with hyperbolic, fear-stoking claims from other top officials, like James Clapper and Robert Gates, who paint Snowden as a “traitor” who caused grave “damage” to US national security.
It’s worth noting that even this tacit approval from one of the military and government’s former highest-ranking officials would be barred from the courtroom, were Snowden to return to the United States today. The Espionage Act affords no public interest defence, rendering Snowden’s motives – even as acknowledged by someone who oversaw mass surveillance from the highest position – irrelevant.