EDITORIAL: Leaks show that secret data isn't really secret

Members of Congress are calling for the prosecution of Edward Snowden for leaking the existence of far-reaching U.S. surveillance programs. Given that Snowden, 29, says he knew he was breaking the law to expose what he considered to be governmental abuse, he surely will be prosecuted. He may even desire it.

Yet high-ranking members of Congress -- including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- can't get away with just calling for Snowden's head and holding a few pro forma hearings on what his leaks have revealed. They need to engage in introspection about their failure to oversee and put a check on security subcontractors, a shadowy arm of the secret government that has mushroomed since the 9/11 attacks.

Although he previously worked for the CIA, Snowden was not a government employee. He wasn't even a high-ranking officer within Booz Allen Hamilton, the security contractor for which he worked. In interviews, Snowden has stated he was surprised that anyone in the U.S. security field, much less a low-level contractor, would have such broad access to phone call logs, email records and other communications of U.S. citizens. He said he felt obligated to "inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."

Booz Allen Hamilton is one of several firms that have cashed in on post-9/11 security concerns to do front-line work of collecting and analyzing communications data. Along the way, they've created a revolving door between their corporate offices and the National Security Agency.

Whether you see Snowden as a traitor or a hero, you should be alarmed that a private employee at his level could access so much personal data and use it for whatever purpose he decided. This fact alone reveals that the government's vast store of secret data isn't secret at all. It is accessible to thousands upon thousands with security clearances, many of whom have not been adequately vetted.

Some have compared Snowden to Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, another low-ranking computer specialist with a security clearance who, in a self-proclaimed act of conscience, leaked national security secrets. Yet there are big differences between the two.

Manning was a member of the U.S. military, not a private firm, and he leaked a data dump of vast amounts of information, some of which arguably could be used to expose CIA agents and contacts. Snowden, by contrast, exposed the existence of a pair of surveillance programs the government was attempting to keep secret, not the targets of any surveillance.

We agree that communications metadata could be a vital tool to ward off possible terrorist attacks. But use of such tracking must be highly focused, with safeguards to prevent misuse. Snowden has revealed gaping holes in the system, which Congress and Obama have enabled.