The whistleblower-versus-traitor argument has taken on a new dimension with recent moves to curtail the programs that Mr. Snowden revealed. A federal judge ruled that one program was probably unconstitutional, technology companies are demanding changes, lawmakers are considering restrictions, and even a White House panel urged modifications.
If the programs are so debatable, advocates for Mr. Snowden argue, then he should not be punished for bringing them to light…
But inside the White House and the Justice Department, Mr. Ledgett’s suggestion has been met with stony opposition. The administration has made no move to reach out to negotiate any kind of deal and makes clear that it has no plans to. Officials express nothing but antipathy for Mr. Snowden, whose disclosures, one argued, have caused Al Qaeda and its allies “to change their tactics.”…
“The irony is the Obama administration welcomes the debate but condemns the man who sparked the debate,” said Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the A.C.L.U. “The debate would never have happened but for Edward Snowden.”
Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service. It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community…
The shrill brigade of his critics say Mr. Snowden has done profound damage to intelligence operations of the United States, but none has presented the slightest proof that his disclosures really hurt the nation’s security. Many of the mass-collection programs Mr. Snowden exposed would work just as well if they were reduced in scope and brought under strict outside oversight, as the presidential panel recommended.
When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government. That’s why Rick Ledgett, who leads the N.S.A.’s task force on the Snowden leaks, recently told CBS News that he would consider amnesty if Mr. Snowden would stop any additional leaks. And it’s why President Obama should tell his aides to begin finding a way to end Mr. Snowden’s vilification and give him an incentive to return home.
Opponents of amnesty talk about the danger of encouraging more Snowdens. What’s less clear is what they mean by that. This kind of leak, with this scale and historical reach, is rare; whatever deal he might get is unlikely to be offered to anyone who copies a few files. The best way the government can deter the reckless theft of documents is by doing something about overclassification, which has the unintended (but entirely foreseeable) effect of over-clearing people who need to deal with that data for their jobs. Or if, by more Snowdens, we mean people in government who are alarmed enough by extraconstitutional activities to risk their careers and their liberty, do we really need to fear more Snowdens?. The opposite seems likelier.
This brings us to the second case for amnesty: Snowden has done the country good; he has earned his freedom. That is a line of reason that some in the government will have a hard time accepting. But there are a dozen conversations that would not be taking place without his revelations—conversations with consequences, as illustrated by Judge Richard Leon’s finding, earlier this week, that the N.S.A.’s bulk collection of metadata is likely unconstitutional. Nor is it credible to say that Snowden could have done what he did without breaking the law, not when we have also learned that the normal instruments of oversight and judicial review were broken. When Clapper lied to Wyden, that sealed the case for amnesty.
Isn’t that why there is such a thing as amnesty—to square circles like these? Another option may be the related, slightly lesser absolution of a pardon (unlike an amnesty, it generally involves first saying that you were guilty). A pardon is what Jimmy Carter offered to young men who had evaded the draft for the Vietnam War. Their acts, too, were tied to protests against the logic of the war, and may offer a useful parallel when thinking about Snowden’s legal situation.
[Sen. Rand] Paul compared Snowden’s law-breaking to the controversial testimony of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who previously testified before Congress that the NSA did not collect data from American citizens intentionally.
“I don’t think we can selectively apply the law. So James Clapper did break the law and there is a prison sentence for that. So did Edward Snowden,” Paul said.
“So I think personally he probably would come home for some penalty of a few years in prison which would be probably not unlike what James Clapper probably deserves for lying to Congress, and that maybe if they served in a prison cell together, we’d become further enlightened as a country over what we should and shouldn’t do,” Paul added…
“I think the only way he’s coming home is if someone would offer him a fair trial with a reasonable sentence, but I don’t think the death penalty,” Paul said of Snowden. “I mean, we’ve had people all over the news, some of the same people who are defending James Clapper lying to Congress are saying ‘off with his head’ or he should be hung from the nearest tree. I don’t think that’s appropriate and I think really in the end, history is going to judge that he revealed great abuses of our government and great abuses of our intelligence community.”
My scale weighs against Snowden. He launched an important, overdue debate and reassessment of collection practices. Perhaps that would not have happened otherwise. The intelligence community is reaping the bitter rewards of its combined aversion to transparency and its addiction to employing available technology to maximum potential.
Yet the existing oversight, while flawed, is not as feckless as Snowden portrays it, and the degree of intrusion on Americans’ privacy, while troubling, is not nearly as menacing as he sees it. In the government’s massive database is information about who I called and who they called in turn. Perhaps the government shouldn’t have it; surely, there should be more controls over when they can search it. But my metadata almost certainly hasn’t been scrutinized; even if it has, the content of the calls remains off-limits.
If the scope of Snowden’s theft and subsequent disclosures had been as limited, my scale might balance in the opposite direction. But the theft was massive. The injury to intelligence-gathering is of equal magnitude. “I am still working for the NSA right now,” Snowden announced. “They are the only ones who don’t realize it.”
Orwell might have called that double-think.
If that were all that Snowden had done, if his stolen trove of beyond-top-secret documents had dealt only with the NSA’s domestic surveillance, then some form of leniency might be worth discussing.
But Snowden did much more than that. The documents that he gave the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman and the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald have, so far, furnished stories about the NSA’s interception of email traffic, mobile phone calls, and radio transmissions of Taliban fighters in Pakistan’s northwest territories; about an operation to gauge the loyalties of CIA recruits in Pakistan; about NSA email intercepts to assist intelligence assessments of what’s going on inside Iran; about NSA surveillance of cellphone calls “worldwide,” an effort that (in the Post’s words) “allows it to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect.” In his first interview with the South China Morning Post, Snowden revealed that the NSA routinely hacks into hundreds of computers in China and Hong Kong…
Whistleblowers have large egos by nature, and there is no crime or shame in that. But one gasps at the megalomania and delusion in Snowden’s statements, and one can’t help but wonder if he is a dupe, a tool, or simply astonishingly naïve.
Along these same lines, it may be telling that Snowden did not release—or at least the recipients of his cache haven’t yet published—any documents detailing the cyber-operations of any other countries, especially Russia or China, even though he would have had access to the NSA’s after-action reports on the hundreds or thousands of hacking campaigns that they too have mounted over the years.
[T]he latest installment from the “Snowden files” (as the Post’s subhead put it Friday) made me wonder if what we’re experiencing and reading right now is still journalism, investigative or otherwise, or whether it is becoming something very different. I wonder if, after all the disclosures that have already touched off a major reassessment of National Security Agency surveillance by the U.S. government, what we’re reading now is more like free advertising for a certain point of view — Edward Snowden’s point of view, that is, as well as that of his comrade-in-outrage, Glenn Greenwald…
[D]espite very justifiable doubts about the efficacy of the NSA’s bulk collection of telephony metadata, and very reasonable concerns that more protections should be built in against the possibility of a future J. Edgar Hoover — an abuser of liberty and privacy, in other words — intelligence experts have said most of the agency’s key programs, such as surveillance of emails abroad, have already proven critical to national security. As panel member Michael Morell, the former acting director of the CIA, told me last month, even the telephony program might have helped to avert 9/11. He also said he is in favor of restarting a program the NSA discontinued in 2011 that involved the collection of “metadata” for Internet communications. Both programs together, he added, have “the ability to stop the next 9/11.”
So the question is, what purpose does this endless and seemingly indiscriminate exposure of American national-security secrets serve? This is most definitely not the Pentagon Papers, when the Post and the New York Times exposed the truth about a war already largely gone by. This is, if not quite a war, then at least a genuine present danger to Americans — a threat that is, according to some officials, only growing more dangerous.
Snowden has argued that he had a moral duty to challenge an intelligence machinery that was out of control. Hudson Institute senior fellow Gabriel Schoenfeld, author of “Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law,” is not impressed. Snowden outed U.S. intelligence “for engaging in activity that almost every state engages in.” The former contractor then went into hiding in China and Russia, where he enjoys temporary asylum. “I think it is disgraceful,” quoth Schoenfeld, that Snowden lectures Washington but “doesn’t have the courage to criticize abuses of free speech in his host country.”…
It’s almost funny when you follow the editorial boards’ logic. The papers argued that Snowden is a hero because he leaked material about which the public has a right to know. Then they supported granting amnesty or leniency if Snowden would agree to hand over any remaining documents rather than share them with the world. A trial would give Snowden the opportunity to tell his story, the American public a chance to find out what exactly Snowden leaked and Washington the burden of proving a criminal case — but the Times and The Guardian apparently prefer a backroom deal.