Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower And American Hero

The New York Times had an editorial today on how the United States should respond to the revelations on NSA surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden:

Seven months ago, the world began to learn the vast scope of the National Security Agency’s reach into the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the United States and around the globe, as it collects information about their phone calls, their email messages, their friends and contacts, how they spend their days and where they spend their nights. The public learned in great detail how the agency has exceeded its mandate and abused its authority, prompting outrage at kitchen tables and at the desks of Congress, which may finally begin to limit these practices.

The revelations have already prompted two federal judges to accuse the N.S.A. of violating the Constitution (although a third, unfortunately, found the dragnet surveillance to be legal). A panel appointed by President Obama issued a powerful indictment of the agency’s invasions of privacy and called for a major overhaul of its operations.

All of this is entirely because of information provided to journalists by Edward Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who stole a trove of highly classified documents after he became disillusioned with the agency’s voraciousness. Mr. Snowden is now living in Russia, on the run from American charges of espionage and theft, and he faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.

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.

While Snowden’s actions were illegal, there are times when illegal action is necessary to preserve our liberties. This is especially true when it has been the government which as been breaking the law. Providing a reduced sentence would not be enough. Rather than punishing Edward Snowden, he deserves a full pardon and the United States should be considering the most appropriate means of thanking him and honoring him for his service to his country. While this will probably never happen officially, Americans should treat Snowden in the same way as important whistle blowers of the past such as Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed how the government was lying to the American people about the war in Viet Nam.

After further discussion, including how there was no other way for the abuses exposed by Edward Snowden to be acted upon, the editorial concluded with a list of some of the illegal activity on the part of the government which Snowden has exposed:

In retrospect, Mr. Snowden was clearly justified in believing that the only way to blow the whistle on this kind of intelligence-gathering was to expose it to the public and let the resulting furor do the work his superiors would not. Beyond the mass collection of phone and Internet data, consider just a few of the violations he revealed or the legal actions he provoked:

■ The N.S.A. broke federal privacy laws, or exceeded its authority, thousands of times per year, according to the agency’s own internal auditor.

■ The agency broke into the communications links of major data centers around the world, allowing it to spy on hundreds of millions of user accounts and infuriating the Internet companies that own the centers. Many of those companies are now scrambling to install systems that the N.S.A. cannot yet penetrate.

■ The N.S.A. systematically undermined the basic encryption systems of the Internet, making it impossible to know if sensitive banking or medical data is truly private, damaging businesses that depended on this trust.

■ His leaks revealed that James Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, lied to Congress when testifying in March that the N.S.A. was not collecting data on millions of Americans. (There has been no discussion of punishment for that lie.)

■ The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court rebuked the N.S.A. for repeatedly providing misleading information about its surveillance practices, according to a ruling made public because of the Snowden documents. One of the practices violated the Constitution, according to the chief judge of the court.

■ A federal district judge ruled earlier this month that the phone-records-collection program probably violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. He called the program “almost Orwellian” and said there was no evidence that it stopped any imminent act of terror.

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.

Without Edward Snowden, we would not know about any of this. It is unlikely that the entire discussion which is now underway to reevaluate the practices of the National Security Agency  would be taking place. The national debate over this topic we are now engaging in would certainly not be anywhere near as informative and fact-based, if such a debate were to have happened at all.


  1. 1
    David Duff says:

    This sort of debate always tends to extremes – on both sides. It needs to be remembered that all sorts of organisations have personal data on all of us if, that is, you use, say, a credit card or an electronic device.  I was amused (slightly!) just recently when I enquired about holiday breaks in the Med and ever since I have noticed that when I go onto public sites which are nothing to do with holidays, still an advert pops up telling me of the latest offers – funny that! 
    I do think people need to ‘get real’ (is that the current jargon?) about this sort of thing.  All that the NSA was doing was emptying the bins of stored records that the comms companies always have – and still have.  They are not the slightest bit interested in you, Ron Chusid (or me, come to that), unless your name crops up in a possible connection to something naughty – and I don’t mean visiting your local strip club with your mates after work!  Then, and only then, they might be very interested in who you are talking to and what you say.
    However, I can tell you on the basis of a very tiny, low-level experience of intel-collection that joining myriad dots, most of which lead nowhere, is essential because sooner or later a pattern emerges.  It would be a mistake, I think, of colossal proportions following 9/11 for anyone in the USA to think anything other than that there are huge numbers of people ‘out there’ who wish to inflict severe and deadly punishment on the lot of you!  (It is a common misconception amongst many Americans, one that used to be shared by us Brits until we learned the hard way, that everyone loves you.  They do not, most of them hate you, and those that don’t – hate us!)  Those people who hate you now know, courtesy of Mr. Snowden, how NOT to contact each other, thus setting back efforts to find and identify them.
    However, if in the interests of personal liberty and privacy you are happy to take the risk, then, as a democracy, so be it.  But if someone lets off a dirty bomb in Washington you won’t complain, will you?

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    Ron Chusid says:

    There’s a lot of issues here, many of which I discussed in previous posts. I don’t have much time now and I know these issues deserve far more discussion than these brief responses to your points:

    Yes private companies have a lot of information, but that is not the same as government storing information. Private companies might use it to target ads but they can never use the information to harass or imprison people as government can.

    The information is probably not being abused at present. The problem is that the US is building an infrastructure which can easily be abused by a future government.

    The information being obtained does not appear to make us any safer from terrorist attacks. There was intelligence information available before 9/11 which might have been used to prevent the attack if we had more competent leadership at the time. Unfortunately the Bush administration did not believe that a non-government body could inflict serious harm on the country and ignored the recommendations passed along from the Clinton administration, along with further warnings in 2001. Utilizing the type of surveillance and massive long-term storage of data used now would not have made a difference back then, and it is doubtful it is making us any safer now. Obama’s own committee investigating these matters agreed with this.

  3. 3
    David Duff says:

    In deference to your busy schedule I’ll leave it there.  As you say, it’s a complex subject with exceedingly valid arguments from both ends.

  4. 4
    David Duff says:

    I thought this might encourage you, if only very slightly, but ‘Guido Fawkes’, a very well-known blogger ‘over here’ and one usually considered to be very Right-wing although actually he is libertarian, has surprised everyone by coming out in full support of the NYT and their stand on Snowden.  You might find the ‘commentary’ somewhat eccentric but, hey, that’s England these days!

  5. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    If he is libertarian, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Of course it is often hard to predict the views of those who bridge both libertarianism and conservatism as they can differ widely as to how conservative versus libertarian they are, and many such people are libertarian on some issues and conservative on others.

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