Let's get this straight: Edward J. Snowden surrenders his well-paid job as a government contractor and, quite possibly, his freedom by publicly confirming how aggressively the National Security Agency, without obtaining any court warrants, collects the phone and Internet records of tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of Americans.
To the resulting public uproar, President Barack Obama curiously, and unconvincingly, responded, "I welcome this debate, and I think it's healthy for our democracy. " But no one could match the response of Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who while insisting the NSA program Snowden gave up his livelihood to publicly disclose had been operating outside public view for seven years, offered this gem: "To my knowledge, we had not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information."
As far as we know, Snowden did not sell any secret information to any unfriendly nations or entities. The names of no U.S. agents were revealed. No American projects or programs were disclosed or compromised. He may well, as some critics have charged, have a martyr complex. But the last time I checked, that is not a felony. As of this writing, there is a lot about this story we do not know.
What we do know is that Edward Snowden has been relentlessly attacked by Washington pundits and politicians for one, unforgivable offense: He did not graduate from high school. The normally sensible Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, fairly thundered: "I'm just stunned that an individual who did not even have a high-school diploma, who did not successfully complete his military service and who is only 29 had access to some of the most classified information in our government."
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., emphasized Snowden's transcript: "I hope that our national security interests are not going to be determined by a high-school dropout." Liberals and Democrats echoed the same knock against Snowden.
This line of attack is as stupid as it is snobbish. Consider these high-school dropouts: Founding father and genius inventor Benjamin Franklin. Founding Father and First President George Washington. The founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale. American aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright. The first lady of civil rights, Rosa Parks, who refused a Montgomery Alabama bus driver's order to give up her seat to a white passenger. The man who gave the world its most popular chocolate bar, Milton Hershey. Before he would become America's most beloved author, Mark Twain left school at the age of 12 to become a printer's apprentice. The great man who saved the Union, Abraham Lincoln.
And if formal education and advanced degrees are the key to wisdom, please explain how the United States was so misled into the tragedy of the invasion and occupation of Iraq by such well-credentialed academics as doctoral student Dick ("I had other priorities in the '60s than military service") Cheney, Defense Department hawks, including University of Chicago Ph.D. Paul Wolfowitz, Harvard (magna cum laude) grad Douglas Feith, and London School of Economics and Princeton advanced degree holder Richard Perle, as well as Yale magna cum laude graduate and Vice President Chief of Staff — who would be found guilty of two counts of perjury and obstruction of justice — Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
And remember this: Even though, because of physical injuries he sustained, he was forced to leave the Army after just four months, Edward Snowden still served longer in uniform than all those Ivy League-Bush-Cheney war hawks put together. Like a lot of other guys who didn't sit it out in Cambridge or New Haven.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.