There are reasons to worry about NSA surveillance. Civil servants have all the usual human frailties, and when they abuse their power, it’s good to know about it—that’s why we have extensive whistleblower protection laws. But whistle-blowing is different from stealing state secrets and absconding to an unfriendly power, as Edward Snowden did this summer.
For the moment, Snowden’s treachery has brought him a certain celebrity. Shortsighted libertarians think he’s a hero; Matt Damon thinks he did “a great thing.” A Chinese auto company plans to name its new electric car after him. The beautiful Russian spy we deported three years ago offered to marry him. But the good times may not last past the proverbial 15 minutes of fame.
We note the coincidence that August 30 marks the 50th anniversary of Guy Burgess’s death. For the uninitiated: Burgess was part of the Cambridge spy ring. Along with Kim Philby and Donald Maclean, Burgess leaked British and American secrets to the Soviet Union for half a decade following the Second World War. In 1951, he defected. Living in the Soviet Union, he became miserable: He wanted to visit home but the U.K. wouldn’t let him in and the KGB wouldn’t let him out. He shopped mail order from London, and had his suits tailored on Savile Row; by 1963, he was an inveterate alcoholic and died of liver failure, 2,000 miles from his family and friends.
Snowden may have been well intentioned, and he may have some fun in Russia before his 30 pieces of silver are spent. But we wonder how well he thought through his plans: Celebrity doesn’t always last, but being an expat traitor can be a lifetime investment.