Pardoning Edward Snowden

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
-- Benjamin Franklin

New attention is being paid to American exile Edward Snowden these days with the release of a movie by filmmaker and screenwriter Oliver Stone. Titled “Snowden,” it looks into what drove the National Security Agency (NSA) contract worker to take top secret documents from his workplace.

More attention to Snowden is also being generated with the calls by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union for President Barack Obama to pardon him.

Snowden was horrified by what he was discovering about the depth to which the NSA was violating the laws and rights of American citizens through its clandestine surveillance operation. Not only was domestic telephone call information being tapped and analyzed, but social media exchanges were also being scanned, as were email messages.

NSA argued that its searches weren’t as intrusive as claimed in that it was just collecting “metadata” – information in its raw form that allowed it to look for key words or phrases that might lead it to discussions being conducted by potential or actual terrorists. Still, it was violating U.S. citizen 4th Amendment rights to privacy with its warrantless searches.

In releasing NSA surveillance data and practices to four trusted news organizations – The Washington Post, New York Times, The Guardian and the Intercept –Snowden provided American citizens with knowledge vital to the continued sanctity of their right to privacy. For his service he deserves a pardon. That’s not what The Washington Post editors think. They argue that he violated his oath, contractual obligations and U.S. laws in releasing NSA surveillance operational initiatives to the press.

The Post argues that while release of NSA’s metadata collection that broadly and indiscriminately swept up data on U.S. citizens domestically was justified, release of information on its lawful overseas PRISM intelligence gathering initiative wasn’t.  PRISM allowed the NSA and FBI to track foreign suspects through their digital communications. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has said that outing the PRISM program probably caused “‘tremendous damage’ to national security.”

What The Post ignores in its editorial is the fact that Snowden didn’t publish the information, the Post did. The four publications that received Snowden’s NSA information had its experienced reporters dig through it. They even contacted the NSA on some of the information to assess just how much damage would be done by its release before deciding whether or not to go to print with it. Snowden had no part in the publication.

While The Post and intelligence agencies say there was damage done by releasing information on the PRISM program to date they have not pointed to any harm done to its operatives as a result of the publishing of the information.

The Post’s editorial touches on the passions of Snowden supporters by its references to “best traditions of civil disobedience” and a willingness to go to jail in support of beliefs and actions. But these catch phrases come off hollow in light of the reality Snowden faces should he return.

The rules for Snowden’s trial would be set under the Espionage Act. It would not allow a “jury of his peers” to hear his deeply held conviction that a fundamental right to privacy was being violated. It does not allow for Snowden to argue his “higher purpose” in releasing national security data. He cannot talk about how the revelation of NSA’s data gathering operation started a necessary national dialogue about national security versus the right to privacy. He can’t talk about how his act has led to new protections of citizen privacy.

Snowden is not entitled to the protections of a whistleblower as a contracted employee.

It is ironic that there is an internal battle going on at The Post between its news organization and its editorial writers. There is a firewall between the two that allows each to take a different stand on issues.

“Disclosing the massive expansion of the NSA’s surveillance network absolutely was a public service,” Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said. Baron represents the news side and was the editor at the Boston Globe when it began its series on the abuses of Catholic priests. “In constructing a surveillance system of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness, our government also sharply eroded individual privacy. All of this was done in secret, without public debate, and with clear weaknesses in oversight.”

While The Post calls for Snowden to return to face a trial, The Guardian, The New York Times and The Intercept, all are calling for Snowden to be pardoned. The Post is the first newspaper in the history of journalism to call for the prosecution of one of its sources.

Had Snowden not released his information on NSA’s spying programs, showing the broad scope of their intrusiveness, their violations of U.S. laws, the intelligence agency’s work would have continued unchecked. Who is to say how much more invasive it would have become but for the changes Snowden’s revelations caused.

Digital technology’s rapid and unstoppable evolution guarantees the tools to quietly eavesdrop on citizen telephone conversations, online reading and viewing habits, and digital text exchanges will only get better.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower feared the power of the military-industrial complex to subvert democracy. In the face of the intelligence-digital technology complex we face a far greater danger that our rights will be violated. The evolution of digital technology will always put citizens a step behind the massive, dispassionate corporations and America’s intelligence gathering machine.

Only through the individual courage of citizens like Edward Snowden will we have the ability to safeguard our freedoms.

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