Much has been said and written about Edward J. Snowden, from bloggers to prize-winning journalists, from TV talking heads to the presidential candidates of both major parties. A diversity of opinion, sure, but the facts are not really in dispute.
As a former CIA employee and then Booz Allen Hamilton contractor, Snowden took classified material from the National Security Agency and gave it to journalists — thereby alerting Americans that their personal phone, email, social media and bank records were being illegally seized by the federal government.
Pulitzer prizes have been awarded to both The Washington Post and The Guardian of London for their reporting on NSA surveillance, reporting only made possible by the material Mr. Snowden risked all to hand-deliver to them.
On Friday, Oliver Stone’s movie Snowden opened in theaters across the country. If one hesitates to experience Stone’s sometimes fast-and-loose-with-the-facts sense of history, no problem: there are a number of excellent documentaries available, including the film Citizenfour, winner of the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Timed to the new movie’s release, the House Intelligence Committee released a 36-page report entitled, “Review of the Unauthorized Disclosures of Former National Security Agency Contractor Edward Snowden.” Unfortunately, the report is classified, so you and I can’t read it.
A three-page executive summary was released publicly — along with a news release quoting various congressmen on the committee, who argued that Edward Snowden is “not a patriot,” but, instead, “a traitor.” Barton Gellman, a senior fellow with the Century Foundation, called the report’s summary “aggressively dishonest.” Gellman, then at the Washington Post, was one of four journalists to receive classified materials from Snowden — in addition to The Guardian’sGlenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill and Citizenfour filmmaker Laura Poitras.
Last week, an effort was launched by the ACLU, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to seek a presidential pardon from Barack Obama before he leaves office next January. The urgency of gaining a pardon from President Obama stems from the fact that neither Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump nor Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton are at all likely to pardon Snowden.
After all, Mrs. Clinton calls Snowden “a lawbreaker” and wants him to face charges. Mr. Trump says, “He’s a terrible guy,” and even hinted at seeking his execution.
Americans have been very divided on whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor, and accordingly, on whether he should be pardoned. A poll from a year ago found a plurality of 43 percent did not want him pardoned, while 33 percent favored a pardon.
Still, whatever one thinks of Mr. Snowden and his legal status, it seems strange that only one side of the illegality exposed has been addressed. One question, rightly, is whether Mr. Obama will pardon Snowden. But another legitimate question is whether Mr. Snowden and his fellow Americans, you and I included, will pardon President Obama.
Granted, no one has charged Obama with a crime.
And he never will be charged, most likely.
And yet, while no judicial determination has been made as to Snowden’s innocence or guilt, the judiciary has determined that Obama’s actions, in having his NSA gather our phone and internet metadata — and more — were illegal.
Snowden argues he was following a higher law: alerting the people to the illegal activity of their government. Obama violated that higher law: the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“I welcome this debate,” Obama declared after Snowden broke the story of NSA surveillance. “And I think it’s healthy for our democracy. I think it’s a sign of maturity, because probably five years ago, six years ago, we might not have been having this debate.”
Obama’s U.S. Attorney at the time, Eric Holder, also applauded the debate Snowden sparked. Even the chief lawyer at the NSA acknowledged, “It’s certainly possible to think that increased public discourse about intelligence programs is a good thing.”
Of course, the debate would not have ever occurred if the public had no idea what both the Obama and Bush Administrations were up to. That disclosure, that transparency, came courtesy of Snowden — notwithstanding Obama’s silly statements to the contrary.
Some will never “pardon” or forgive Snowden, because he signed a contract to keep the government’s secrets and then broke his word. Yet, who among us, after making a similar pledge to accept a job and then discovering illegal activity in the work place, would put such a pledge ahead of doing what is right?
Last week, speaking from Russia (where the U.S. Government stranded him by canceling his passport) about the possibility of a pardon, Snowden said: “Yes, there are laws on the books that say one thing, but perhaps this is why the pardon power exists — for the exceptions, for the things that may seem unlawful in letters on a page but when we look at them morally, when we look at them ethically, and when we look at the results, it seems obvious that these were necessary things.”
If only Mr. Obama was as thoughtful in explaining himself and his administration’s unconstitutional actions, he might receive a pardon from civil libertarians . . . and from history.
And from Snowden.