If everything Edward Snowden says is true, he is a criminal whose actions may have endangered American lives. He is also a conscientious citizen, risking career and liberty to expose what he believes to be grave wrongdoing. This is the paradox underlying government surveillance programs in general, and in particular the shaky foundations of the U.S. national security apparatus.

Snowden, an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton working in Hawaii as a contractor for the National Security Agency, has revealed himself as the source of leaks about a program called Prism, which allows the NSA to collect and mine user data from companies such as Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and Microsoft Corp. Until recently, according to news media reports, Snowden was holed up in a Hong Kong hotel; he says he intends to seek asylum from “any countries that believe in free speech.”

There’s a compelling case to be made against Snowden’s actions. If Prism played the central role that officials claim, then revealing its existence could significantly harm Americans’ safety. If Snowden didn’t want to be part of such a program, he could have simply left his job. If he thought the program was being run improperly, he could have taken his concerns to the agency’s inspector general or to Congress.

Leakers’ Dilemma

But anyone seeking to pass judgment on Snowden should try to understand the dilemma he describes. He says he didn’t want to live in a society that engages in the sort of program he worked on. Based on statements from President Barack Obama and members of Congress, it seems unlikely that Snowden would have found much support from inside government for his view that the program was abusive. So he concluded -- perhaps irresponsibly, perhaps arrogantly -- that going public was the only way to force a change.

Snowden’s case highlights the difficulty, if not impossibility, of debating U.S. national security policy in this age of ubiquitous technology: How do you build informed public consent for surveillance when the only people who know about those programs can’t talk about them? And without the public’s consent, how can those programs be legitimate in a democratic society?

Those questions aren’t new, but Snowden’s revelations give them new importance. Those who think what he did was wrong need to do more than just criticize his actions. The goal should be to make it easier for others like him to follow their consciences without breaking the law. And we need to have the public debate that Snowden concluded was lacking -- a point that can’t reasonably be contested, even by his angriest detractors.

The Obama administration may be tempted to respond to Snowden’s actions by intensifying its policy of intimidating would-be leakers through prosecutions. Yet as this case demonstrates, the prospect of imprisonment doesn’t deter everyone. The administration and Congress should instead acknowledge that members of the intelligence community need better avenues for reporting practices they find to be abusive - - if only because, absent such avenues, there will be more Edward Snowdens.

Snowden hasn’t alleged any illegal activity. Yet there are reforms that could be useful, even if they wouldn’t apply in his case.

One option would be to give contractors with access to classified information the same whistle-blower protections that government intelligence personnel received under a presidential directive issued last year. Another would be to expand the role of the Office of Special Counsel or similar body to include the investigation of the type of privacy abuses Snowden says he observed. If would-be leakers think they can get a fair hearing for their complaints without going to the media, they may make different choices.

Classified Expansion

The fact that Snowden was an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton has also raised questions about the appropriateness of turning over so much of our national security and intelligence work to private contractors. That may be a legitimate point, but its relevance is to the vast expansion of the surveillance state -- and the explosion of classified information. There were about 1.3 million people with top-secret security clearance last year, more than a third of them government contractors.

Instead of asking whether the government should rely less on companies such as Booz Allen, the Snowden affair compels us to ask a different question: Whether the U.S. national security apparatus is now too big, and its techniques too sweeping, to maintain the level of secrecy the government claims it needs -- and what size, and which means, are appropriate for a democratic republic.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.