Opinion

End the war on whistleblowers

Why President Biden should pardon Reality Winner and Edward Snowden

President Trump was the most aggressive prosecutor of whistleblowers of any president in American history. The previous record was set by President Obama, but the Trump administration launched as many prosecutions in four years as Obama did in eight.

President Biden, as part of his campaign to undo many of his predecessor's worst policies, should pardon most of these folks, or at least commute their sentences. Disclosing classified information that the public deserves to know does not deserve a lengthy prison sentence.

Of all the candidates for a pardon, Reality Winner's case is most obviously convincing, though as yet has not gotten the wide attention it deserves. She did indeed leak classified documents to The Intercept (which horribly botched its security protocols and basically handed her to the FBI, though she probably would have been caught eventually), which is against the law. But the exposure of these documents did not even slightly harm national security.

Here's what seems to have happened. Winner listened to the Intercepted podcast in early 2017, including one episode in which former Intercept co-founder and journalist Glenn Greenwald expressed skepticism about the idea that Russia had hacked the DNC and John Podesta to boost Donald Trump in the 2016 campaign. Therefore she sent the publication classified material showing the NSA had evidence that not only was Russia behind those hacks, it had actually successfully hacked into an election software vendor. For that she was sentenced to five years and three months in prison. It was the longest sentence in history for simply leaking to the press — and very obviously related to Trump's desire to punish people who pointed out his connection to the Russia hack.

Any reasonable American should favor her release because the public has a right to know when U.S. intelligence agencies think a hostile foreign power is trying to compromise America's electoral machinery. At bottom, she was simply doing what the NSA is supposed to do — protect the country. Indeed, as Kerry Howley (a journalist who has been following the Winner story closely) points out, when The Intercept published its story on the leak, the federal agency in charge of assisting state election authorities put out a bulletin informing state governments what had happened for the first time. Several states were outraged that they hadn't been informed earlier, and justifiably so. It's not the first time that intelligence agencies' compulsive secrecy and over-classification has gotten in the way of doing their purported jobs.

In any case, all the important details Winner leaked were later published in the Mueller report. Her action was carried out in good faith; she did no harm and at least some good. And anyone who simply believes in proportional punishment must agree that, even on the harshest possible reading of events, Winner has already paid for what she did and then some. She should be pardoned immediately.

Edward Snowden's case may be less convincing for many. He, of course, is the former NSA contractor who leaked details of the agency's then-dragnet surveillance to Laura Poitras, Greenwald, and other reporters at The Guardian back in 2013. That was a more traditional whistleblower-style activity of exposing a program that was legally and constitutionally dubious, but nominally dedicated to protecting national security.

In reality, intelligence agencies later admitted in classified documents that the dragnet program was basically useless. Snowden's revelations led a U.S. court to declare the program illegal, and helped lead to NSA reform becoming law — proving beyond question the public value of what he did. And once again, seven years being exiled in a rather dangerous foreign country (he has been stuck in Russia since 2013) is severe enough punishment on its own. He should be pardoned and allowed to return home.

Julian Assange is a more noxious personality, but the current U.S. effort to extradite and prosecute him should be dropped (following Obama administration precedent, which Biden so far has refused to do). Assange may have actively assisted Russia in its efforts to hack Democrats' emails in 2016, and he did push the disgusting Seth Rich conspiracy theory, but the Trump administration's moves against Assange had nothing to do with those things. Instead he is being prosecuted mostly for publishing classified material from Chelsea Manning a decade ago — which, if successful, would blast a hole in the First Amendment and would put other journalists who do the same thing in every major news publication at risk.

There are at least five more people in jail, on probation, or facing some other punishment for clear whistleblower activity under Trump:

- John Fry is a former IRS employee who leaked Suspicious Activity Reports (a document in the Treasury department detailing suspect bank transactions) involving Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen, and recently got five years probation. Revealing corruption among the ex-president's associates is good and he should be pardoned.

- Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards is a former Treasury employee who leaked SARs detailing suspect transactions from Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort to BuzzFeed News, and faces possible prison time. She should be pardoned for the same reason as Fry.

- Daniel Hale is a former intelligence analyst who leaked documents about drone warfare to The Intercept, and faces years in prison if convicted. The American people deserve to know about the operations of the U.S. military. He should be pardoned.

- Terry Albury, who was the only Black FBI agent in a detail assigned to look into the Somali-American community, sent documents about endemic racism in the agency to The Intercept, and was sentenced to 4 years in prison in 2018. The problem of racism in law enforcement speaks for itself these days; he should be pardoned.

- Navy Captain Brett Crozier commanded an aircraft carrier and was fired for desperately pointing out the fact his ship had a massive COVID-19 outbreak, which embarrassed Trump. He should get his job back.

President Trump wildly abused his pardon power — deploying it mainly to protect his criminal friends from prosecution. President Biden could make a clean break with Trump's horrible reign by putting the pardon back to its intended use, and ending the U.S. government's war on whistleblowers.

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