Edward Snowden is the former National Security Agency contractor who risked his job, his prestige and his freedom to expose the NSA’s secret mass surveillance programs that trampled the privacy rights of Americans. For that, he has earned the gratitude of millions of Americans and the loathing of the security state. The Justice Department indicted him under the Espionage Act for revealing classified information. The State Department stripped him of his passport while he was in a Russian airport transit lounge, effectively exiling him to Russia. Now human rights organizations at home and abroad are joining to call on President Barack Obama to pardon Snowden.
Even those who oppose a pardon acknowledge that, as Obama’s former attorney general Eric Holder said, if Snowden’s leak of classified information was “inappropriate and illegal,” the whistleblower had performed a “public service.”
The scope of that service too often gets ignored. Snowden’s disclosures revealed that the NSA was spying on the digital lives of hundreds of millions of innocent people, trampling their privacy with no prior review, reasonable suspicion or probable cause. The leaks sparked the greatest reform of the intelligence agencies since Watergate. As Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, observes, Snowden’s revelations led to the “first … legislation to rein in the NSA in over 30 years, reform of the secret [intelligence] court, and significant, long-overdue public releases of critical information by the government about its spying on innocent Americans as well as millions of others around the world.”
The resulting reforms helped to strengthen privacy and security on the Internet, while actually making the NSA programs more effective. Timothy Edgar, director of privacy and civil liberties in Obama’s own national security staff, concluded: “Snowden forced the NSA to become more transparent, more accountable, more protective of privacy — and more effective.” For this, Edgar says, “the U.S. government has reason to say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Snowden.’”
To spark these changes, Snowden was forced to break the law. But he did so responsibly and with great caution. Rather than dumping documents on the public, he worked with respected journalists from The Post, the Guardian, the Intercept and a number of other publications. He asked experienced journalists and editors to make the judgment of what could be released in the national interest without damaging the country or endangering lives. This was no turncoat selling secrets to the nation’s enemies, no general revealing classified information to his inamorata. This was a patriot seeking to protect the rights of his fellow citizens.
President Obama and Hillary Clinton suggest that Snowden should have operated within the agency, raising his objections internally, with the “protections” that whistleblowers have. But Edgar points out: “My job was precisely to provide top officials with confidential advice about how to ensure that intelligence programs were protective of our liberties. In doing so, I made just the sort of arguments that many have said Snowden should have raised internally instead of compromising classified information. Unlike Snowden, I had direct access to the officials that could have made surveillance reform a reality — and who did so, after the Snowden leaks forced their hand. There is no way a junior NSA contractor could have accomplished more.”
Snowden’s revelations sparked needed reform at home. They also embarrassed the president and U.S. officials abroad, with revelations that the NSA was tapping the phones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, among others. But to date, the NSA and U.S. government have revealed no evidence that the information Snowden released has caused any harm to this nation’s security. Aggravation, yes. Embarrassment, surely. Unwanted but needed reform, no doubt.
Even in exile, Snowden has continued to serve the greater good. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, and Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, making the case for pardoning Snowden, write that Snowden now “is the head of a human rights group, the Freedom of the Press Foundation; he’s developing technology to protect journalists in dangerous zones around the world from life-threatening surveillance; and he has frequently criticized the human rights and technology policies of Russia, the only country that stands between him and a high-security prison in the United States.”
Faced with this reality, those intent on hunting Snowden too often resort to slurs, inventions and lies. A case in point is the three-page summary of a 36-page secret report on Snowden rushed into print by the House Intelligence Committee apparently to provide a counter to the pardon campaign and the sympathetic portrait of Snowden in the new Oliver Stone film. The House release contains far more fantasy than Stone’s admitted fictionalization. Former Post reporter Barton Gellman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his articles based on the Snowden documents, calls it “aggressively dishonest” and “trifling.” There’s no evidence that Snowden stole 1.5 million sensitive documents, as the committee charges. He didn’t “flee to Russia”; he was trapped there when the government stripped his passport. He didn’t have protected whistleblower avenues. He didn’t lie about his medical discharge from the military or his position as a NSA contractor. The House report accuses Snowden of causing “tremendous damage” to national security, but fails to offer a clue of what that damage might be.
Even more bizarre is the recent Post editorial opposing a pardon for Snowden. The editorial board admits that “we owe … necessary reforms to Mr. Snowden.” But then it condemns Snowden for leaking information about overseas NSA monitoring and of “basically defensible international intelligence operations.”
This ignores the fact that Snowden didn’t make the choice of what secrets were published. That was made by reporters from responsible papers. In fact, as the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald notes, the stories the editorial board cites were determined by reporters and editors of The Post itself to be important to the public good. The Post then submitted these articles to the Pulitzer Prize board, seeking and rightfully winning a Pulitzer for public service.
The facts on this are clear. Snowden broke the law in the service of the public’s right to privacy, and to enforce the vital democratic imperative that the secret state operate under the laws and the constitution of this country.
A presidential pardon is precisely designed for this situation. It is an act of presidential discretion to do justice. It sets no precedent. It does not preclude the prosecution of those who endanger national secrets, whether a paranoid secretary of state, an infatuated general or a foreign spy. No future leaker could count on similar treatment. A pardon would recognize the public service that Snowden provided, without undermining the rule of law. For a president who has argued that we need not sacrifice our liberties for security, it is time to act.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL