July 18 (Bloomberg) -- Fugitive security contractor Edward Snowden “did this country a service” by igniting a debate about the reach of the U.S. government’s electronic surveillance programs, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union said today.
Anthony Romero, speaking at a national security conference in Aspen, Colorado, said Snowden’s disclosures opened the way to political debate and legal scrutiny that wasn’t possible before he released highly classified information about National Security Agency programs that gather information on phone calls and Internet communications.
“He did this country a service by starting a debate that was anemic, that was left to government officials when people did not understand fully what was happening,” Romero said at the Aspen Security Forum. “I think, regardless of where you come out on it, we have now a vigorous public debate. We have six lawsuits that have been filed on the NSA program. We have Congress holding hearings yesterday, finally saying, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not the law I thought I signed.’”
Romero said the ACLU hasn’t decided whether it would be willing to aid in Snowden’s legal defense if he were to return for trial. Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong and then Moscow, faces U.S. espionage charges.
Romero criticized White House spokesman Jay Carney for saying that Snowden isn’t a human-rights activist or whistle-blower. “Well, who made him king of the human-rights community?” Romero said.
Another panelist, Jeh Charles Johnson, a former Defense Department general counsel, said, “It is a bad message to send to people who decide to take the law into their own hands that they are doing a public service.”
Former Representative Jane Harman said Snowden shouldn’t be viewed in the same category as national-security whistle-blowers such as Daniel Ellsberg, who made public the Pentagon papers about the Vietnam War.
“This is completely different from Ellsberg,” said Harman, a California Democrat who headed the House intelligence committee. “This is a kid who had nothing to do with formulating the policy, for my lights is totally self-centered and narcissistic.”
He should come back and face a fair trial, not seek asylum abroad, she said.
The U.S. is pressing Russia to expel the former security contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., whose bid to stay in Russia while seeking safe passage to Latin America has cast a shadow on preparations by Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin for a summit in early September.
While Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have indicated they’d be willing to take Snowden, Putin has accused the U.S. of stranding Snowden in Moscow by putting pressure on other countries to prevent his travel through their airspace and to deny him refuge.
A coalition of companies, privacy advocates and trade groups sent a letter today to Obama and congressional leaders asking permission for Internet and telephone companies to publish the number and types of U.S. data requests they receive.
The 63 organizations that signed included Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc.; non-profit privacy advocates the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation; and trade groups the Computer and Communications Industry Association and the Internet Association.
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