Edward Snowden: Why the President should Grant him a Full Pardon2
News broke a few months ago that President Trump was giving serious consideration to granting a pardon to Edward Snowden. Some of you may not recognize that name, so let me give you a brief summation of why he is important.
At 22 years of age, Snowden got his first top secret clearance from the NSA. Less than a year later he was at the CIA, working as a systems engineer “with sprawling access to some of the most sensitive networks on the planet” (Permanent Record, 2). All this, I might add, with only a GED to his educational credit. By the time he was 29 Snowden had worked for both the CIA and the NSA and had shown himself to be one of the more brilliant intelligence analysts on the scene. His expertise in the inner operations of the internet is simply remarkable.
As Snowden continued to ascend to increasingly higher levels of security clearance, he became aware of the massive surveillance of America’s citizens by America’s intelligence agencies. In fact, he was assigned the task of developing systems that would encroach ever more deeply into virtually all digital communications. What he discovered was that the National Security Agency was monitoring all phone calls, text messages, emails, internet searches and purchases made by the citizens of this country, even when no evidence of illegal or terrorist activity was suspected. Indeed, any and all digital communication had become part of what Snowden refers to as a permanent record (hence, the title to his book).
So, in 2013 Snowden left Hawaii where he had been stationed and made his way to Hong Kong with a veritable treasure trove of documents that meticulously described the extent of surveillance not simply of American citizens but of most major governments and its citizens around the world.
Through a series of highly encrypted emails, he made contact with Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, film producer, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gellman, who at the time worked for the Washington Post. The Guardian also sent another of its employees, Ewen MacAskill, to confirm the truth of Snowden’s revelations. Greenwald, Poitras, and MacAskill met with Snowden for several days in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong. The footage from those days constitutes the bulk of the documentary film, CitizenFour, directed by Poitras, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2014.
When I first heard of Snowden’s actions I was outraged and called for his arrest and prosecution. But no more. I do not deny that Snowden broke the law. But the law that he broke is nothing in comparison with how the NSA was daily breaking the law literally millions of times. The Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unlawful search and seizure, was being violated every single day. The NSA, according to Snowden, was aggressively intruding on the privacy of millions of Americans and other individuals worldwide on a consistent basis. He finally reached the point where his conscience would not permit him to turn a blind eye to this horrendous violation of personal privacy.
I’ve read most of the books about Snowden, and I highly recommend them to you. The best, of course, is by Snowden himself. His book, Permanent Record, was my choice for the best book of the year in 2019. I’ve read it three times. Another excellent portrayal of the events from a journalistic perspective was written by Glenn Greenwald, who first interviewed Snowden from his hotel room in Hong Kong. His book is titled, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (2014). Another insightful treatment is by Luke Harding, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man (2014). Finally, the most recent volume is by Barton Gellman. His book is titled, Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State (2020).
In addition to these books, I highly recommend, as noted above, that you watch CitizenFour, the Academy Award winning documentary of Snowden directed by Laura Poitras (2014). The film Snowden, by Oliver Stone (2016) is also entertaining, although as one would it expect it takes some liberty with the story line for dramatic purposes.
So, why would I advocate for the pardon of a man who exposed innumerable top-secret documents that proved profoundly embarrassing to our government? The simple reason is because our government should be profoundly embarrassed!
(1) Unlike traitors such as Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, Snowden (who I insist was not a traitor) didn’t ask for so much as a dime from a foreign government in exchange for these documents. Monetary gain was not even remotely his motivation.
(2) Related to the above point is the fact that Snowden walked away from a lucrative career, the comforts of family and a woman he loved, friends, and the conveniences of living in Hawaii. What would lead a person to make that sort of sacrifice? Conscience.
(3) Unlike other traitors in the past, Snowden never disclosed any document or secret that proved damaging to United States security. No document disclosed by Snowden put at risk the lives of any of our personnel working abroad or undercover. Although several governmental officials tried to argue otherwise, no proof has been forthcoming that Snowden’s disclosures cost anyone their life or put anyone in jeopardy.
(4) Snowden has steadfastly refused to cooperate with Russia or any other government in exchange for favorable treatment or asylum. He made it clear to Russia on his arrival there that he would not share any information that he had gained during his time working for several U.S. intelligence agencies. I should also point out that Snowden never intended to end up in Russia. When he fled Hong Kong he hoped to make his way to Ecuador, but the U.S. government, on hearing that he had boarded a flight departing Hong Kong, immediately revoked his passport, leaving him stranded in the Moscow airport. He was recently granted permanent residency by the Russian government.
(5) Snowden is more than willing to return to the U.S. to face charges, if that were done in a fair and equitable way. But that is impossible due to the nature of the Espionage Act (1917) under which he has been charged. It’s important that you understand why Snowden cannot defend himself against charges under the Espionage Act. According to the latter, there is no defense that can be admitted into a court of law. Merely possessing top-secret documents is enough to secure a conviction of life in prison. No defense in the form of motive or circumstance can be given. Such evidence is ruled inadmissible. It doesn’t matter why Snowden disclosed these documents. The mere fact that he did is sufficient to render him guilty and subject to life in prison.
(6) Snowden acted on the basis of conscience, and not personal gain. In fact, he has been compelled to live in Russia with his wife Lindsay, who is now pregnant with their first child. He describes the challenge he faced:
“How was I to balance my contract of secrecy with the agencies that employed me [i.e., primarily the CIA and NSA] and the oath I’d sworn to my country’s founding principles? To whom, or what, did I owe the greater allegiance? At what point was I morally obliged to break the law?” (Permanent Record, 6).
When asked by Greenwald about the possibility of his going to prison, Snowden replied:
“I’m going to try not to. But if that’s the outcome from all of this, and I know there’s a huge chance that it will be, I decided a while ago that I can live with whatever they do to me. The only thing I can’t live with is knowing I did nothing” (No Place to Hide, 51).
(7) You may ask why Snowden didn’t simply report this to his superiors. The reason is simple. He had witnessed others (such as Thomas Drake) who before him had tried to speak truth to power. They were crushed by the government. Drake’s case was documented on the show, 60 Minutes. They were harassed, lost their jobs, were vilified in the press, and driven into bankruptcy. Those to whom Snowden might have chosen to report his concerns would have suppressed the evidence and exposed him to perpetual harassment, demotion, or more likely the loss of his job. Snowden often refers to the individuals who before him had tried to blow the whistle on government overreach. They have been denounced, silenced, and driven into obscurity.
So, yes, Edward Snowden broke the law, and I’m glad he did. He broke the law by revealing how the U. S. government was breaking the law and invading the privacy of its citizens literally millions of times a day. Does that justify his actions? I’ll let you decide for yourself. But if I could appeal to the President, while he is still in office, I would ask: “Please, Mr. President. Pardon Edward Snowden and allow him to return to the country he loves, together with his wife.”
In the meantime, read Permanent Record.
UPDATE: Just a few months ago the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the mass surveillance program exposed by Snowden was in fact illegal and a likely violation of the Fourth Amendment. You can read about it here.