Snowden-NSAWith all the "Yes, but" debate filling the air on the propriety of secret national security surveillance vs. whistleblowers' disclosures thereof, it comes as a relief (and something of an astonishment) that this very week an international collaborative of experts and activists on all sides of these issues has published a 35-page report, based on more than two years of research and debate, called "Principles on National Security and the Right to Know." As reported by Steven Aftergood, who tracks national security secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists,

The Principles present guidance on specific types of information that the drafters believe may legitimately be withheld from disclosure on national security grounds (e.g. current war plans), as well as categories of information that should not be withheld on national security grounds "in any circumstances" (e.g. information on gross violations of human rights).

The Principles are the product of an international initiative, and they are not the same as U.S. policy writ large.  In fact, some of the Principles are inconsistent with current U.S. government practice.

Thus, one principle would preclude the use of secret interpretations of law in the conduct of intelligence surveillance. "The overall legal framework concerning surveillance of all kinds, as well as the procedures to be followed for authorizing surveillance, selecting targets of surveillance, and using, sharing, storing, and destroying intercepted material, should be accessible to the public." (Principle 10E).

Another principle would provide strong protection to persons who publicly disclose government wrongdoing involving classified information, under certain specified conditions. (Principle 40).

The tools of transparency can be used to attack an open society-- by infringing on personal privacy, by violating confidentiality in the exercise of religious freedom or free association, or by making sensitive military or intelligence data available to violent fundamentalist adversaries. But in a briefing paper, the drafters of the Principles disavow such actions.

"The aim of the Principles is not absolute or radical transparency. The Principles, in keeping with international law, recognize that the right of access to information may be limited by other important interests including international relations, public order, public health and safety, law enforcement, future provision of free and open advice, effective policy formulation, economic interests of the state, personal privacy and commercial confidentiality."

Applying the Principles to the Snowden leaks: one analysis.