Today Ethics in Tech joins the growing chorus of voices calling on President Barack Obama to pardon NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden before leaving office in January.
Whistleblowers are all too often vilified and criminalized as traitors today, then vindicated and lionized as patriots on some distant tomorrow. Such was the case with Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers some 45 years ago. These classified government files revealed, among other bombshells, that the Lyndon B. Jonson administration systematically lied to the public and Congress about the nature and scope of the US war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. At the time, Ellsberg was demonized and charged with theft and conspiracy under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law perennially blasted for its chilling effect on free speech and whistleblowers. All charges against Ellsberg were dismissed in 1973 and today he is widely viewed as a champion of government transparency and accountability. In 2006, Ellsberg won the Right Livelihood Award, known as the “alternative Nobel Prize,” for “putting peace and truth first, at considerable personal risk, and dedicating his life to inspiring others to follow his example.”
Among the numerous courageous whistleblowers who risked everything to follow Ellsberg’s example is a young former CIA and NSA computer expert named Edward Snowden, who leaked classified documents revealing the US and UK governments were engaged in illegal mass surveillance on a global scale, targeting US citizens, foreign leaders both friend and foe, multinational corporations and even the future Pope and online games including World of Warcraft and Second Life. Newspapers that published Snowden’s revelations won the Pulitzer Prize. His story was told in an Oscar-winning documentary film, as well as an Oliver Stone-directed movie opening this week. He has been honored with numerous prestigious international awards, and he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for contributing to “a more stable and peaceful world order.” Yet Snowden remains exiled in Russia, charged under the Espionage Act, with American politicians from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump calling him a criminal who should face everything from prosecution to execution.
Now the American Civil Liberties Union and other prominent human rights organizations have launched a campaign asking President Barack Obama to pardon Snowden before he leaves office in January. Those supporting this effort range from former government intelligence officials to prominent journalists, filmmakers and academics, to online privacy activists and A-list Hollywood celebrities. Ellsberg, who in a 2014 Guardian editorial called Snowden “the greatest patriot whistleblower of our time,” features prominently among those now seeking a presidential pardon.
Of course, Snowden, like many whistleblowers, is a highly divisive figure, with around two-thirds of Americans who are familiar with him viewing him unfavorably (although he is overwhelmingly admired in other Western democracies). In response to the Pardon Snowden campaign, the entire House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence — which includes nine Democrats — penned a letter to President Obama accusing Snowden of “perpetrating the largest and most damaging public disclosure of classified information in our nation’s history.”
“Mr. Snowden is not a patriot,” the letter asserts. “He is not a whistleblower. He is a criminal.” Yet one is powerfully reminded of the words of Martin Luther King Jr., himself no stranger to government vilification, who once admonished that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” As Snowden recently said:
History reminds us that governments always experience periods in which their powers are abused, for different reasons. This is why our founding fathers, in their wisdom, sought to construct a system of checks and balances. Whistleblowers, acting in the public interest, often at great risk to themselves, are another check on those abuses of power, especially through their collaboration with journalists.
While I am grateful for the support given to my case, this really isn’t about me. It’s about us. It’s about our right to dissent. It’s about the kind of country we want to have, the kind of world that we want to build. It’s about the kind of tomorrow that we want to see, a tomorrow where the public has a say.
I love my country, I love my family, and I have dedicated my life to both of them. These risks, these burdens that I took on, I knew were coming. And no one should be in a position to make these kind of decisions. That’s not the kind of place that we’re supposed to be. But it doesn’t have to be. Of course I look forward to coming home, but I cannot support the persecution of those charged under an Espionage Act, when they have committed no espionage.
Following Snowden’s revelations, a federal appeals court ruled the NSA mass surveillance program illegal, leading to its termination last November after Congress passed the most comprehensive surveillance reform law since the 1970s. There has also been a sea change in public awareness and opinion of online privacy and government surveillance issues in the wake of Snowden’s leaks. There are even those who have operated within the very agencies whose secrets were revealed by Snowden who acknowledge the value of his efforts. Barry Eisler, a former covert operative in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, “wholeheartedly” supports a Snowden pardon. “All nations require some secrecy,” Eisler wrote in a Time editorial. “But in a democracy, where the government is accountable to the people, transparency should be the default; secrecy, the exception. And this is especially true regarding the implementation of an unprecedented system of domestic bulk surveillance.” Eisler continues:
That today we are engaged in a meaningful debate about whether such a system is desirable is almost entirely due to the conscience, courage and conviction of one man: Edward Snowden. Without Snowden, the American people could not balance for themselves the risks, costs and benefits of omniscient domestic surveillance. Because of him, we can.
As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama praised whistleblowers, saying their “acts of courage and patriotism… should be encouraged rather than stifled as they have been during the Bush administration.” As president, however, not only has Obama continued with Bush-era whistleblower prosecutions, he has, in the words of Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald, “waged the most aggressive and vindictive assault on whistleblowers of any president in American history.” From Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to CIA torture whistleblower John Kiriakou to Army war crimes resister Chelsea Manning and others, the Obama administration has repeatedly demonstrated that those who expose government crimes will be punished far more severely than those who commit them. The president’s war on whistleblowers could become one of the darkest stains on his legacy. But there’s still time for Obama to get on the right side of history — he surely knows that future generations of Americans will view whistleblowers like Manning and Snowden as heroes. Tens of millions of people already do, to one degree or another — witness former Obama attorney general Eric Holder, who in May praised Snowden for performing a “pubic service” by starting a national conversation about government surveillance.
President Obama could and should send a powerful message that the United States does more than just pay lip service to transparency, accountability and respect for the rule of law by pardoning Edward Snowden. He should do so as soon as possible.