Edward Snowden is the former National Security Agency contractor who risked his job, his prestige and his freedom to expose the NSA’s secret mass surveillance programs that trampled the privacy rights of Americans.
For that, he has earned the gratitude of millions of Americans and the loathing of the security state. The Justice Department indicted him under the Espionage Act for revealing classified information. The State Department stripped him of his passport while he was in a Russian airport transit lounge, effectively exiling him to Russia.
Now human rights organizations at home and abroad are joining to call on President Barack Obama to pardon Snowden. Even those who oppose a pardon acknowledge that, as Obama’s former attorney general Eric Holder said, if Snowden’s leak of classified information was “inappropriate and illegal,” the whistleblower had performed a “public service.”
Snowden’s disclosures revealed that the NSA was spying on the digital lives of hundreds of millions of innocent people, trampling their privacy with no prior review, reasonable suspicion or probable cause. The leaks sparked the greatest reform of the intelligence agencies since Watergate.
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As Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, observes, Snowden’s revelations led to the “first . . . legislation to rein in the NSA in over 30 years, reform of the secret [intelligence] court, and significant, long-overdue public releases of critical information by the government about its spying on innocent Americans as well as millions of others around the world.”
The resulting reforms helped to strengthen privacy and security on the internet, while actually making the NSA programs more effective. Timothy Edgar, director of privacy and civil liberties in Obama’s own national security staff, concluded: “Snowden forced the NSA to become more transparent, more accountable, more protective of privacy — and more effective.” For this, Edgar says, “the U.S. government has reason to say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Snowden.’”
To spark these changes, Snowden was forced to break the law. But he did so responsibly and with great caution. Rather than dumping documents on the public, he worked with respected journalists from The Post, the Guardian the Intercept and a number of other publications. He asked experienced journalists and editors to make the judgment of what could be released in the national interest without damaging the country or endangering lives.
This was no turncoat selling secrets to the nation’s enemies, no general revealing classified information to his inamorata. This was a patriot seeking to protect the rights of his fellow citizens.
To date, the NSA and U.S. government have revealed no evidence that the information Snowden released has caused any harm to this nation’s security. Aggravation, yes. Embarrassment, surely. Unwanted but needed reform, no doubt.
Even in exile, Snowden has continued to serve the greater good. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, and Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International write that Snowden now “is the head of a human rights group, the Freedom of the Press Foundation; he’s developing technology to protect journalists in dangerous zones around the world from life-threatening surveillance; and he has frequently criticized the human rights and technology policies of Russia, the only country that stands between him and a high-security prison in the United States.”
A presidential pardon sets no precedent. It does not preclude the prosecution of those who endanger national secrets. No future leaker could count on similar treatment. A pardon would recognize the public service that Snowden provided, without undermining the rule of law.
For a president who has argued that we need not sacrifice our liberties for security, it is time to act.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation magazine.