“When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law,” said The New York Times in an editorial, “that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government.” Such, however, is the fate awaiting Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who last year told the world about the shocking depth and breadth of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. Without Snowden, we’d never have known that the NSA was keeping records of every phone call made in the U.S. and abroad, or that it had tunneled into major Internet data centers and the servers of Facebook, Google, and other private companies, or that National Intelligence Director James Clapper lied to Congress when he denied any systematic surveillance of U.S. citizens. Snowden is clearly a whistleblower, not a spy, yet he faces espionage charges should he ever return to the U.S. from Moscow, where he has temporary asylum. This isn’t a complicated issue, said Kevin Drum in MotherJones.com. Either you believe we’d be better off never knowing about NSA surveillance programs one federal judge has called “almost Orwellian,” or you have to “approve of what Snowden did, warts and all”—and should support a plea-bargain deal or a presidential pardon. Given the public outrage at the extent of NSA surveillance, “I’d say the choice is obvious.”
Edward Snowden is no hero, said NationalReview.com. Only a tiny portion of the NSA “abuses” he revealed were illegal, and those had already been caught and corrected by internal audits and the federal surveillance court. If he felt a need to blow a whistle on some specific practices, he should have contacted the House and Senate intelligence committees. Instead, he perpetrated “the gravest intelligence breach in U.S. history,” stealing as many as 1.1 million documents and defecting to China and Russia. A pardon for Snowden would set a dangerous precedent, said Josh Barro in BusinessInsider.com, effectively telling government workers to use their own judgment in deciding what to keep classified. “I trust the government to decide what needs to be secret more than I trust rogue contractors with security clearances.”
If Snowden had released only information about the NSA’s domestic surveillance, said Fred Kaplan in Slate.com,“then some form of leniency might be worth discussing.” But he went far beyond the role of a patriotic whistleblower. Snowden released classified documents about the surveillance of Taliban fighters in Pakistan, as well as targets inside Iran, showed al Qaida how the NSA uses phone records to map terrorist networks, and revealed that the NSA regularly hacks computers in China, America’s sworn cyberenemy. Then this self-declared champion of individual liberty and government transparency sought refuge in authoritarian China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Has this proven liar shared U.S. intelligence secrets with these hostile regimes? Who knows?
But look at the bigger picture, said Jonathan Turley in the Los Angeles Times. President Obama chose not to prosecute the CIA employees or Bush administration officials who tortured or ordered the torture of suspected terrorists, on the grounds that these officials believed they were doing their patriotic duty when they committed crimes. The same can be said of Snowden, who has undeniably triggered a critical debate over security and privacy in this country. A presidential pardon would be a welcome signal that wherever we ultimately decide to strike that balance, “the White House is serious about reform, and accepts responsibility for the abuses that have been documented.”